CARMEN MARIA MACHADO’S short story “The Husband Stitch,” currently a finalist for the 2015 Nebula Award, begins simply enough: a woman tells the story of her marriage. The relationship takes a familiar shape, moving from teenage passion to marital tension. What’s striking about it is something just as familiar, but from a different context: the woman wears a ribbon around her neck and nothing her husband says or does can induce her to take it off.
The trope of the woman with the ribbon around her neck is an urban legend familiar to many American kids, exchanged at slumber parties or summer camps in the spooky glow of a flashlight. “The Husband Stitch” is full of tales from this genre, pressing lightly through the dominant narrative. There’s the one about the couple in a parked car who listen to a radio broadcast about a hook-handed escaped killer, only to hear the scrape of his hook on the door. There’s the one about the girl who takes a dare to spend the night on a grave, plunges a knife into it to prove she was there, and then, having pinned her own skirt to the ground, dies of fright. Freud’s definition of the uncanny — something familiar that ought to have remained hidden, but has come to light — helps explain the urban legend’s relationship to “The Husband Stitch.” While the narrator tells of sexual awakening, marriage, and adulthood, the ribbon around her neck (which she will neither remove nor explain) recalls the terrible buried knowingness of childhood. Campfire chillers draw their energy from the fact that everyone knows the ending will be horrible, and the teller knows exactly how. In choosing this form for “The Husband Stitch,” Machado represents heterosexual marriage as a horror story whose ending we all pretend we don’t know.
In 2011, Machado began publishing strange and seductive stories that show a particular interest in form. In her fantasy and science fiction pieces, such as “California Statutes Concerning Defrauding an Innkeeper” (which draws on fairy tales), and “We Were Never Alone in Space” (a melancholy ghost story set partly on Mars), she turns these genres around to see how they work, just as she does with urban legends in “The Husband Stitch.” “California Statutes” takes the form of a legal document whose long, repetitive sentences weld the intoxicating dance of the fairy ring to the disorientation that seizes an ordinary person trying to make sense of the law: legalese is a spell and the law an inescapable enchantment. In “We Were Never Alone in Space,” time flows backward, emphasizing the preoccupation with existential problems that lies at the heart of so much science fiction. It’s not just that time is relative and physics slippery; it’s that science fiction offers a space for us to wrestle with the essential weirdness of the universe and our place in it. In Machado’s story, the surface of Mars is both physical substance photographed by rovers and mythic geography. The red planet is a land of the dead.
Machado’s work doesn’t just have form, it takes form. Hers is a greedy oeuvre. In addition to the genres of speculative fiction, her stories mine all kinds of language: law, television, porn. “Ekphrasis,” about a mysterious painting by a Dutch master, takes the form of a choose-your-own-adventure story. “Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead” is a Kickstarter project complete with rewards, stretch goals, and updates. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order SVU,” one of Machado’s most powerful and disturbing works, lists 12 seasons of imagined episodes of the television show. This novella is a particularly good place to look at how Machado uses form, because the television show is such a rigid one: each episode needs a crime, an investigation, and some kind of solution. Machado draws attention to the form by breaking its rules, as in the episode called “Debt,” in which nothing really happens: the entire description consists of the sentence “Benson and Stabler don’t play Monopoly anymore.” Elsewhere, she takes the opposite approach and accentuates the demands of the show, as in this sequence of episodes from Season Six:
“Ghost”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too tired to become a spirit.
“Rage”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too angry to become a spirit.
“Pure”: A prostitute is murdered. She is too sad to become a spirit.
The repetition of form — its transposition into new contexts, which Machado practices so intensely in her fiction — emerges here as something ghostly and threatening. Form is undead: it hangs around, like the doubles in “Especially Heinous,” the Henson and Abler that haunt the detectives Benson and Stabler. Henson and Abler enter slyly into the episode descriptions, so that it’s easy to miss them at first or to mistake them for the detectives we know. The recognition that these are two other detectives prompts a double take. Where did they come from? How long have they been there? Who are the real detectives, and who are the mimics? The doppelgänger problematizes the relationship between theme and variation. In “Especially Heinous,” the central problem is the relationship of the theme of violence against women to its entertaining variant, Law & Order SVU. As a host of murdered girls begins haunting Benson, the television show starts to look like an extended copycat crime. At one point, Benson’s double, Henson, whispers to the DA of “a world which watches you and me and everyone. Watches our suffering like it is a game. Can’t stop. Can’t tear themselves away.” This episode is called “Screwed.”
Sex, capable of infinite variation, holds a prominent place in Machado’s fiction. (She also writes erotica under the name Olivia Glass.) In “Inventory,” a woman alone on an island recalls all her sexual encounters. As she slowly reveals that a plague has destroyed the rest of humanity, the elbows, navels, and condoms of her memory take on a kind of glow, and all that hot, sad, stinky sex becomes an elegy for the human. In “Difficult at Parties,” the extreme variability of sex is a problem: the narrator has survived a sexual assault and, in an effort to heal and reconnect with her boyfriend, orders some “adult films for loving couples.” When she watches screen sex, she hears the actors’ thoughts, which interfere with the pleasure of their performance: “A man with two women on his cock wants to be home.” Sex is hopelessly double, enabling both pleasure and trauma, both violent dehumanization and profound humanity.
“There are so many of them,” Detective Benson whispers in “Especially Heinous” — so many women. Women throng Machado’s fiction, desperate, dazzling, full of passion for one another. Queer desire runs through her stories, whether as the basis of the narrative, as in “Mothers,”* in which a lesbian couple inexplicably has a baby, or as an oblique gesture like the wife’s brief yearning for a female art model in “The Husband Stitch.” The feminist subtext of “Especially Heinous” is also characteristic. “The Husband Stitch” opens with directions for reading the story aloud, a nod to the novella’s parent form, the oral genre of urban legend. We are instructed to read the narrator’s voice as follows: “as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.” All other women, the narrator adds, should be read in a voice “interchangeable with my own.” The command to read all women as childish, high-pitched, and forgettable sets the narrator up as a docile and domesticated Everywoman, a dream girl of patriarchal culture. The title of the novella has a metonymic relationship with this role: A “husband stitch” is an extra stitch in the vagina put in by a doctor after a woman gives birth because it is thought to increase the husband’s pleasure. The story pressures us to consider the relationship between the husband stitch and the ribbon around a woman’s neck that literally holds her together. It also raises the problem of the relationship between the submissive Everywoman and the creepy stories told by girls at sleepovers. Do these stories stitch patriarchal culture together or unpick it in some way? What do young girls know?
We don’t know what they know. We don’t even know where their stories come from. That’s the weirdest thing about urban legends. They cross state lines according to their own obscure logic and transport themselves through generations even though nobody ever hears them from their parents. “Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond,” says the narrator of “The Husband Stitch.” “They are each borne from the clouds separately, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.” In Machado’s stories, form is uncanny, sly, a pool of raindrops, a slightly skewed face in the mirror. We’ve seen it all before, but never quite like this.
* Full disclosure: “Mothers” appears in Interfictions, a magazine I co-edit. As I work on poetry and nonfiction, I was not involved in selecting the story.