Reading Carmen Maria Machado’s “Inventory” During A Pandemic
The choice to take a closer reading of Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Inventory” was made before I found myself in lockdown. Having read it back in 2018 in Machado’s collection “Her Body and Other Parties”, the story stuck with me, and though it had not been a conscious decision, reading a pandemic tale during a pandemic makes for a different perspective than the circumstances the first reading allowed. How more pertinent and engaging could a story be than when mirroring one’s own current experiences?
I had first enjoyed the slow drip of information, the list of lovers, the cast of characters passing through and on to an uncertain world. It feels like “uncertain” is a word too frequently bandied around at the moment, but that feeling closes the door on a future, forces us to sit in the present and invites us to assess our pasts, much like the narrator of the story.
The structure of the story is compellingly simple. “Inventory” is a tale told in twenty-parts, a list of memories. Each section begins by succinctly cataloguing and qualifying the lovers the unnamed protagonist has taken during her life:
“Two boys, one girl.
One of them my boyfriend.”
The protagonist furthers each encounter with a description of the experiences: young and furtive teenage experimentations; young-adult college trysts that made her “…[feel good] like an adult who had sex sometimes, and a life.”
The encounters are relatable, pulling on old memories in the reader, allowing them to furnish these concise scenes with their recollections to develop engagement in the story. Similarly, each character is sketched in brief — grey eyes, snakes tattoos, CDC employees — enough to feed the reader an archetype without lengthy development, trusting the reader to bring their interpretation to the narrative.
Throughout the early descriptions of past trysts, we develop a sense of unease, our narrator feeding unsettling lines at the end of each recounting: how she will never be able to watch “Jurassic Park”, or how she misses the floral odour of fabric softener. It is during the description of one sexual encounter that the first hint at what has befallen the character is revealed: a virus in…