Three-A-Week (2.2): Carmen Maria Machado’s “Mothers”

Published November 2014 in Interfictions (Issue 4)

(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.)

I don’t know what to say about “Mothers.” I’ve been thinking about it for awhile now, rolling it around in my head, rereading parts or the whole, and it’s a story that slides out of my hands any time I think I’ve gotten ahold of it. It’s sly, the language blistering and contorting in the wake of a reality too violent or too terrifying to relay lucidly. And yet, at times, the world of this story fades away and a single moment between a mother and her child or a mother and her past or a mother and her imagined future clarifies and crystallizes in heartbreaking and unambiguous prose/narration.

So my dilemma has been to abandon by own expectations when approaching this story. Initially, I was hung up on this question of what is real vs. what isn’t. What happened and what is imagined? What is the speculative element? Those kinds of questions beg for a story to be hung and quartered, broken up into discrete chunks that can be weighed, valued, and circumscribed. But “Mothers” resists that kind of easy sorting. The literal speculative element is not nearly so speculative and not nearly so elusive as the narrator’s reshaping of reality, her understandable and tragic need to see the violence of her present as the genesis of a wonderful and loving future.

This is where the reality of the narrative goes wonky for me, and I’m left with questions that feel unproductive–but that I’m having difficulty getting over. Take the ending of the story, for instance. One the one hand, I really like it. This is a place where the language of the narrator is thinning, where the telling of the story is so close to the core of the story itself that the language is almost unnecessary, impossible. It reminds me a little of Beloved–the ways in which language falls short at times to express the horrors and joys of the heart. Here, too, language and structure and form fall away in the face of a beautifully imagined future and a startlingly tragic present. And I love that.

And yet, on the other hand, I hit the end of the story and think: did the narrator and Bad actually live in this house? Or was that purely an element of her imagination? Did they actually have Ada? There are two streams of narration here: one that is so realistic and uncomfortable (how the narrator and Bad met) and the other that is speculative and winding (the narrator and Ada, Ada growing up, Ada having a brother, them living in the house), and I don’t know which to believe (if it can only be one). I don’t know why I can’t bury these plot questions, especially in the face of this narrator and her need to pull and push at the malleability of reality. It’s frustrating, and that’s only slightly the story and almost completely my shortcoming as a reader. I’ve always believed that stories teach you how to read them, and this story seems to be instructing me to have a looser grip on creating a linear timeline and instead better consider a woman so hurt that her only avenue for finding agency and control over her life is to imagine something else, something better or at least different. But then there are moments of real crossover between these two narrative streams–like when the narrator points us to a crack running through the wall of the house and disappearing behind a bookshelf (in the Ada narrative) and then begins the next section by telling us how she was thrown into the wall on her last night with Bad, and suddenly I’m trying to piece this whole thing together and assemble a narrative that threads through these snapshots of a life remembered and imagined. It’s discombobulating, and maybe that’s the point, but I felt myself getting so hung up that it really took an effort to abandon what seemed like unproductive questions.

This is a hard transition from the previous stuff, but god damn is there some really incredible prose in this piece. Just look at this line: “And then the dry and curl, the slow approach of death on trillions of radial feet, peristalsis-perfect winterbeast, the ground more exposed than we thought possible, the trees alone, the howlgroan of the wind, the coming of snow that we can smell.” That’s the kind of language you can just fall into.

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One thought on “Three-A-Week (2.2): Carmen Maria Machado’s “Mothers”

  1. Pingback: Updates: Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet & Watchlist | Carmen Maria Machado

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