Published February 2015 in Nightmare (Issue 29)
(Warning: I’m going to be talking about the story assuming you, my wife or imaginary reader, have read it. Here there be spoilers. Also, these are my rough, rambly thoughts; I make no promises regarding cohesion or concision.)
The first I heard about Carmen Maria Machado was Sofia Samatar’s really stunning write-up over at the Los Angeles Review of Books. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. Go ahead, it’s cool. I’ll wait.
Done? I mean, after that, how could a person not want to read Carmen’s stuff? I just received a rejection from Nightmare, so the magazine was already on my mind when I saw one of her stories in there. And I’m so happy I started with this one!
“Descent” is such an amazing story. The LARoB write-up highlights the super smart marriage of form and content Carmen is after, and this story is a great example of that. There are these neat nested narratives that feel like opening doors that you are increasingly anxious to open. There’s a weird way in which the story becomes clearer, more exacting and horrifyingly realistic, as the narrative gets abstracted away from a single voice into an odd version of narrative telephone. We have our narrator telling us what Luna said, but soon Luna is telling the narrator what Salma said, and at one point Salma is telling Luna who is telling the narrator who is telling us what Salma’s grandmother told her (Salma). It seems like it would be overly complex, and when considered apart from the story fueling it, the form seems thorny, but it works so incredibly well as both a vehicle for the narrative and as a manifestation of the narrative itself. It’s smart and impactful, two things which should go together more.
I was surprised and really delighted by the ending of the story. The ending has a very Sixth Sense-y feel to it. It’s a realization that the reality we thought we were in all along is in fact (part of) the terror. And I could see where the horror was in that, but it worked even better on a metaphorical level for me, because what was really scary about this story was the paralleling going on between the nested narratives. The fact that the narrator has seen Death at the end is only sort of impactful on its own–we haven’t spent much time with her, and though we’re sharing the narrative with and through her, she feels like another audience member experiencing these things as opposed to a character. But linked together with the other stories, and with the ways in which the horror of school shootings has so pervaded culture today, the sudden collision with Death at the end is important and really powerful. There’s a bond created in the sharing of stories, and “Descent,” in addition to being a story to share on its own, is about stories that people share and the connections (for good and ill) that result from that. It’s a really neat story.
(As a sidenote: what’s that called when a thing is what it says it is? Like a Natalie Portmanteau. It is an example of itself. Or something. It’s late [side-sidenote: apparently I’m at the age–28–where 9:30 is late] and thinking about this is making my head fuzzy. Anyway, that’s what this story is. It reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the schizophrenic’s table–it is a table made up of all the possible tables, but it’s just slightly off, it doesn’t look quite right, it’s just a little unnerving. That’s “Descent.”)