The semiotics of the sewing machine is clearly something that deserves closer study. I get that it is gendered technology, that it is an instrument of both economic liberation and wage slavery; but what of it as an instrument of deconstruction or a lust object?
In the first story in this extraordinary collection, “Unstitching,” Greta discovers how to unstitch herself. She peels away clothes, skin, and hair to reveal her true body, which “did not so much resemble a sewing machine as … the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based” (p. 1). Once other women see her, they recognize their true form and follow suit. Men, alas, have no true form to reveal, and only injure themselves when they try to do so. Having discovered their natural and ideal body, of course, women can no longer use a sewing machine, which is “seen as a form of repression, an outdated distraction” (p. 3).
In the last story in the collection, “Notes from a Spider,” the narrator has the upper body of an elegant man, but below the waist he has eight legs like a spider, which allows him to “buy four pairs of each shoe I desire, and wear them all at once” (p. 146). He is, in other words, and despite this outlandish appearance, a style icon. But he is lonely, there is none other of his kind, until he spots “the most beautiful but inhuman thigh” (p. 152) and falls inescapably in love with the sewing machine to which it belongs. He hires seamstresses—“those poor thin bespectacled things who live in basements and attics, living off thin soup and dented cans of fish, their backs hunched, their fingers thin and calloused. Yes, there was something insect-like about them” (p. 153)—to work the machine until they collapse and die. He opens a sewing machine museum, which attracts an endless stream of women drawn by the machine that is killing them. Eventually, he begins to cut himself, so that his sewing machine can be used to stitch his wounds closed again, the bite of the needle feeling to him like love bites.
Between these two perverse hymns to the sewing machine, the device crops up repeatedly in the stories that make up this collection. In “Agata’s Machine,” for instance, two young girls huddle in an attic while a sewing machine-like device is used to conjure up strange, haunting figures—part frightening, part alluring. In the end, the girls become addicted to making these figures, though they cannot seem to interact with them in any way, and life drifts away from them in this dark attic. In “Waxy,” the central figure scrapes a perilous living in this dystopian society by painting the names onto sewing machines at the local factory. And so on; even when a sewing machine plays no direct part in the story (there are a few such) you feel that it is still present, necessary but unwelcome, tucked into an unregarded corner of the room.
Grudova has lighted on the sewing machine as the icon that best represents the lot of the women who fill her stories. They are the ones who, as in “Notes from a Spider,” hunch their backs, ruin their eyesight, hurt their fingers just to exist. So it is little surprise that, when the viewpoint widens enough to glimpse something of the society within which these women are situated, it is almost invariably a dystopia. In “Waxy,” for instance, men can earn a regular stipend by constantly sitting examinations that lead to no actual advancement, while women have no role except menial work in the factory. Every home is shared with other families, so there are always unwelcome strangers about, ready to denounce any slight deviation from the norm. And the biggest crime is having an unlicensed child—so that when the narrator of the story hooks up with an undocumented man who doesn’t do exams, and then has an unregistered child, it marks a descent into the grimmest aspects of the world.
The world of “Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead” is not dissimilar. Edward’s parents had to sell all of their furniture to provide for his education, though he still seems a rather hopeless figure, and it is his new wife, Bernardette, who brings furniture back into the home. When the parents die, the house is too big to avoid having strangers lodge with them, but Bernardette remains the go-getter. She wants to buy a sewing machine so she can make enough money that they will be able to afford to have a child. When Edward informs her that he has died, Bernardette continues to bring him fish and tea in the crypt where he lies with the other dead, who are mostly “elderly people who wet their coffins and spat into newspapers, as they didn’t have hankies” (p. 114). But eventually she stops visiting, because she has got her sewing machine and is having a baby with one of the lodgers.
In “Rhinoceros,” Nicholas and his mother live in a world in which shops have very few things for sale on their mostly empty shelves, and many close down suddenly, without warning. But they make a precarious living (any living in these stories is precarious) because every few months a man in a top hat turns up and gives them money and food in return for Nicholas’s paintings of animals. There don’t seem to be any real animals around, but he gets his inspiration from old tins and jewellery and bits of pottery and anywhere else they might come across old images. Then, on their way to try and find a new source of art supplies, they happen upon a zoo. There are no animals there, of course, but it is still a godsend for Nicholas because the enclosures still carry notices with pictures of the creatures that once lived there.
The stories are, of course, surreal. There is one bravura piece which tells the life story of a sconce that is the offspring of an octopus and a ship’s figurehead, but which smells too strongly of fish and looks too strange for most of its subsequent owners. That is a relatively short piece, and, speaking personally, I find surrealist fiction tends to work better at short length. Stories like “Unstitching,” “The Gothic Society,” “Rhinoceros,” and “Hungarian Sprats” have an immediate impact, and are over before their strangeness starts to outstay its welcome. The longer pieces—and “Waxy” is probably the prime example—tend to confuse the periodic introduction of new strangeness with plot, so the more the story goes on the less coherent it feels. But such pieces are in the minority: Grudova seems to be adept at judging just how long a story needs to be to remain at its best. So here we have thirteen weird tales, all but one or two of which achieve a startling intensity, and the image of women crippled by the sewing machine that is their only means of staying afloat in an oppressive world is one that is going to linger long.