Self-Salvation, Structure, and Sex Part II: Intertextuality in Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”
We’re thrilled to publish another two-part series by Candace Walsh! You can find her two-part essay on Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt in the archives. Here, Walsh explores intertextuality in two contemporary short stories. Part I considers Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor,” and Part II delves into Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch.” —CRAFT
By Candace Walsh •
In Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” the authors use intertextuality as a structural element: a rhythmic, outside-of-time interruption of the chronological main story. Simultaneously, each of the female narrators employ intertextuality to grapple with and subvert male expectations in romantic contexts. Intertextuality, in this context, alludes to the referencing, retelling, or summarizing by narrators, within the short stories, of external narratives. In “Famous Actor,” café-server and narrator Katherine summarizes and capsule-reviews films. She brings a famous actor home from a party, and nonchalantly has sex with him, yet he wants more: her deepest thoughts. Carmen Maria Machado folds urban myths into her narrator’s coming of age story: the narrator falls in love with a man and gives him everything, except permission to touch or untie the green ribbon encircling her neck. Each of these women keep secrets to protect themselves, in direct opposition to their lovers’ expectations. In these stories, intertextuality serves as a fortress. And not all fortresses withstand protracted sieges.
In “The Husband Stitch,” Carmen Maria Machado demonstrates a rich array of intertextual storytelling, which runs like a ribbon through her story. “I have always been a teller of stories,” the unnamed narrator declares. Her first-person coming of age memories (sexual awakening, marriage, motherhood) initially alternate with third-person narration that includes many urban myths. Eventually, the mythic storytelling overtakes the first-person accounts, when trauma impels the narrator, in an act of dissociation, to subsume her own story, her own voice.
The very first line introduces intertextuality in the form of stage directions: “If you read this story, please use the following voices.” This tips us off to expect an unconventional reading experience. The speaker then describes meeting her future husband. “In the beginning, I know I want him before he does.” In a second intertextuality event, she employs the Bible’s first three words.
We also gather that this story will include intertextuality in the form of retellings when Machado writes “I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled off to a sanatorium.” A frank expression of female desire becomes a cautionary tale before the love story resumes.
The future husband notices the green ribbon around the narrator’s neck. He sees it as an embellishment; she knows it secures her head to her body, although this is information too perilous to reveal. “‘Oh, this?’ I touch the ribbon at the back of my neck. ‘It’s just my ribbon.’… ‘You shouldn’t touch it,’ I say. ‘You can’t touch it.’”
The courtship progresses. She has sex for the first time, with him in a car. She bleeds, and it hurts, but she rallies in spite of her biological bequest. After the pain, she masturbates while he watches. This verges into another example of intertextuality in the form of a series of urban myths; we all know the one about the murderous madman who lurks around steamy-windowed teen beaters:
“Anything could move out there in the darkness, I think. A hook-handed man. A ghostly hitchhiker forever repeating the same journey. An old woman summoned from the repose of her mirror by the chants of children. Everyone knows these stories—that is, everyone tells them, even if they don’t know them—but no one ever believes them.”
He again wants to touch her neck ribbon, but she distracts him, like Scheherezade, with promises of more stories. “Sometime…I will tell you the stories about this lake and her creatures.”
After he comes to her house and meets her parents, she walks with him to a nearby forest and initiates sex. “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.” Her joyous embrace of her own desires quashes cautionary tales’ warnings. The stage directions return:
(If you read this story out loud, the sounds of the clearing can be best reproduced by taking a deep breath and holding it for a long moment. Then release the air all at once…. Do this again, and again, shortening the time between the held breath and the release.)
Not only does Machado’s narrator proudly own her own sexual agency, she also invites readers to collaborate, perform it, retell her own story with their breath.
He asks her to marry him, and she says yes. “‘I feel like I know so many parts of you,’ he says to me, knuckle-deep and trying not to pant. ‘And now, I will know all of them.’” To him, truly knowing his beloved is predicated on her surrender of any and all private thoughts.
As the narrator picks out her wedding dress, another story arises:
“When I select my wedding gown, I am reminded of the story of the young woman who wished to go to a dance with her lover, but could not afford a dress. She purchased a lovely white frock from a secondhand shop, and then later fell ill and passed from this earth. A doctor who examined her in her final days discovered that she had died from exposure to embalming fluid.”
Here, wearing a white dress is conflated with being poisoned, just as getting married eventually kills the narrator. She shares another gothic tale of a bride who plays hide and seek in her hope chest, which locks her in. “Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.” Within this story, the bride-to-be avers that stories prey on joy, misplacing blame that could be channeled toward interrogating the patriarchy inherent in these stories’ predilection for the downfall of female characters. She introduces these cautionary tales but remains, perhaps willfully, un-cautious.
On their honeymoon, she observes, “Europe is a continent of stories, and in between consummations, I learn them.” She conceives, and again fends off her husband’s attempts to handle her neck ribbon.
As a nod to the impending maternal surrender of her body, the narrator relates. “There is a story I love about a pioneer husband and wife killed by wolves” that is really about the daughter being adopted by those wolves, raised feral. The girl grows up into a woman who is seen breastfeeding wolf cubs. “They certainly bloodied her breasts, but she did not mind, because they were hers and only hers.” This gory note prefaces her next revelation. As she gives birth, the obstetrician performs an episiotomy (a cut into the anterior vaginal wall and perineum), a common, yet generally unnecessary intervention that accelerates childbirth. The doctor also inflicts the titular “husband stitch,” an extra suturing intended to restore the tightness of her vagina for the pleasure of her husband.
The narrator had previously asked the reader, in stage directions, to pant in order to act out the sounds of sex, and now she asks the reader to share the agony of enduring, and worse—being cordial—after this procedure. “(If you are reading this story out loud, give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.)” The stage directions have moved from which voices to use, to a simulacrum of sexual breathing, to a slicing of flesh plus gratitude. One could only feign gratitude after such an injury, as the narrator does.
The narrator moves from her role as storyteller and stage director into a direct inhabitation of a discrete tale in the next paragraph—and then loops back to stage directions. Here, Machado knits together the narrator’s childbirth experience and the wolf cub story:
There is a story about a woman who goes into labor when the attending physician is tired. There is a story about a woman who herself was born too early. There is a story about a woman whose body clung to her child so hard they cut her to retrieve him. There is a story about a woman who heard a story about a woman who birthed wolf cubs in secret. When you think about it, stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.
(If you are reading this story out loud, move aside the curtain to illustrate this final point to your listeners. It’ll be raining, I promise.)
The episiotomy, performed to speed up childbirth by a few hours for the convenience of the practitioner, takes a year to heal.
The narrator’s unique experiences run into the river of female stories, her legacy as a woman, in spite of her bravery, her bold self-determination. We are given stories as lessons in how to become a woman, and many of them are untrue, misleading. Within the tellings nest betrayals, as the narrator has just cautioned: “When you think about it, stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond. Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.” And when one can’t tell stories apart, wrongs cannot be examined and vindicated.
Eventually, the narrator’s husband overcomes her resistance. He unties the ribbon, and the narrator moves from retelling cautionary tales about women ruined by love to becoming one.
“Self-Salvation, Structure, and Sex Part I: Intertextuality in Jess Walter’s “Famous Actor” is available here.
CANDACE WALSH holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and is a doctoral student in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Ohio University in Athens. She’s the author of Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press), a NM-AZ Book Award winner, and co-edited Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write about Leaving Men for Women and its sequel, both Lambda Literary finalists. Her short story, “The Sandbox Story,” is forthcoming in Santa Fe Noir from Akashic Books. Her essays have been published in New Limestone Review, Ki’n Literary Journal, Fiction Writers Review, and various anthologies. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @candacewalsh.