“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado

A good Wednesday to you, Story366! I didn’t post last week after posting twice the previous week, making my inconsistency this year pretty damn consistent. Lots of big events have kept me from this marvelous stack of books on my desk, including a reading at MSU by Walter Bargen, followed five days later by a reading event featuring Sam Ligon and Kate Lebo, kind of a warm-up for one of their Pie & Whiskey events up in Columbia for the Unbound Book Festival. They didn’t go all-out in Springfield with twenty just-baked pies and free shots of whiskey, but they did read from their anthology and we did have some local Springfield pie. The next day I drove up to Columbia and read at the real-thing event, which was as much fun as I’ve ever had at a reading, due to the pie and whiskey, yes, but also because of the really awesome lineup, which included Phong Nguyen, Gabriel Fried, Dana Levin, Steve Yarbrough, Kate NuernbergerNina Mukerjee, Robert Lopez, Sam and Kate, and the Unbound creator and coordinator, Alex George. I dragged myself from Columbia the next morning at 6 to be back to teach my workshops—the last of the year!—and then go camping for a couple of days and nights with my oldest boy and his Scout cronies. Lots of great readings events, topped off/balanced by some time in the woods. A good week, but not a lot of time for blogging.

It hurt, too, because I knew today’s book, Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (out from Graywolf) was up next. I’d carried it around in my bag since I posted on Christopher Allen’s book two weeks ago. I’ve been anxious to get into this collection, as the buzz around it has been all that. It seemed to be the book to get at AWP—I missed Machado’s signing at the Graywolf table. Just the other night, while out to dinner with Sam and Kate, my colleague, Jen Murvin, brought it up, and in fact, had her copy with her at the restaurant to read while she waited. Monday, I told my GA, Tay, that she could pick any story to teach our class the last day of the semester and without hesitation, she said she wanted to teach “The Husband Stitch.” It’s the lead story from Her Body and Other Parties, what I’ll focus on today.

It was an abnormally tough choice, writing about “The Husband Stitch” over the other stories in the collection, mainly because this book is full of great stories that would be easy to write about. In fact, I made it much further into Her Body and Other Parties than I do most Story366 books (at least pre-post), as I kept reading and reading, leaving myself only the last three stories for the (near) future. Aside from “The Husband Stitch,” there’s a cool story second up called “Inventory” that starts a bit like “Lust” by Susan Minot, but then finishes quite differently than “Lust” by Susan Minot. Another piece, “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” a sixty-pager, which is a love letter … of sorts … to the long-running NBC staple. “Real Women Have Bodies” was another possibility, a literally haunting story about a prom dress store in a mall, which would have been a great choice, too. In short, this is a remarkable book of stories and I’m not surprised it was a National Book Award finalist.

“The Husband Stitch” has so much going on, so much going for it, I’m not sure where to begin. As the lead story, it solidly introduces Machado’s themes and motifs and voice. The story is about a woman (which, from the book’s title, could be assumed), a woman who is hyper-aware of her standing in this particular setting, Machado employing a really close first person. The protagonist, who is unnamed in the story, offers an intimate tour of her life, starting with the moment she spies her soon-to-be husband at a party, tracing her life and their relationship all the way up to their son’s departure for college. It’s a long, ambitious story, but really, that’s not even close to the half of it.

Along with that central storyline, Machado includes some devices that make this story even more interesting, unlike anything I’ve come across. The story actually starts with some stage directions, the narrator instructing we readers—if we read the story aloud—to assign particular voices to each character: “ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.” and “THE BOY WHO WILL GROW INTO A MAN, AND BE MY SPOUSE: robust with serendipity,” etc. Between scenes, we get more directions—if we’re reading the story aloud—on how to read each forthcoming part, directions that begin to include some pretty drastic actions. I’m not 100 percent why this particular story emphasizes how the story should be read out loud—it could just be a device Machado thought of when writing this particular story—but the meta quality of it all, which pulls us from the narrative, seems overly intentional. It’s an interesting effect. It would be super-interesting to hear her read this aloud, to see how she would handle the stage directions to herself as she was reading her story, which is partly about reading this story.

Machado also includes several interesting tall tales/legends/bits of folklore/anecdotes between scenes, vignettes that are always prefaced with something like “There is a story ….” Then Machado tells us a story. It’s easy, as readers of short fiction, to attempt to connect these anecdotes to what’s going on in the forward-moving narrative, which isn’t hard, Machado’s themes in both these side stories and the main story very similar. Machado favors female characters, puts them in precarious situations, adds vibrant details, all leading toward unsavory conflicts. All three threads—that main story, the side stories, and the reading directions—come together to make a lush, complex whole. Now I can’t imagine this story without all three elements; it’s what this story is, part of why so many people are taking about it.

Certainly, though, not the only reason. I realize I’ve more or less skipped over discussing the plot of this story, and more so, all these themes I keep mentioning—as I’ve pointed out this year, I’m a bit Story366 rusty. In any case, all of the stories I’ve read in Her Body and Other Parties feature strong female protagonists, all of whom are confidently sexual, all of whom deal with the victimhood of women, often at the hands of the men around them; it should be understood, though, that Machado doesn’t portray any of her protagonists as victims, not in the helpless sense. The women in these stories deal: They face conflict, but then make strong decisions and perform strong actions. Our hero in “The Husband Stitch” embodies this more than any other character in the collection.

Oh, did I mention the ribbons? And how they tie into the story? (Ugh, pun.) I think I’ll leave that for you to discover. But there’s ribbons.

And those ribbons are connected—thematically and as an image—to the meaning behind the title. Again, I won’t give that away, what a “husband stitch” is, but I went into the story not knowing and when Machado’s narrator explained it, I was pretty horrified. How it plays into this story, especially with how Machado handles it, leaves a deafening impact. Macho’s themes aren’t light, aren’t always easy to read. But I’m more than sure that’s the point.

Overall, “The Husband Stitch” has as much going for it as any story I’ve read, as both a fiction writer’s exercise (Meta! Unrelated anecdotes! Techniques!) and an honest, intense reading experience, coming at us in a voice that we haven’t quite heard before. I got that same feeling from all of the stories in Her Body and Other Parties: writing and content equally well rendered. This book has gotten a lot of attention this past year, and deservedly so. It’s remarkable in any way you’d want a collection to be remarkable, giving a reader everything stories can give.