Eleanor Stern

In the dream house

In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado, Graywolf Press, 2019, pp.304, £14.99 (hardback)

People, generally speaking, do not want to read a memoir on abuse. It’s not that readers do not care for the subject; in fact, caring is what makes it hard. Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is noteworthy for many reasons, but for this most of all: Machado will keep you reading when you most want to turn away. 

Three hundred or so pages packed with emotional manipulation and physical terror is, unsurprisingly, a challenge for readers. Yet Machado deftly disassembles domestic abuse narratives in same-sex couples, drawing upon her own traumatic experiences with an abusive ex-girlfriend, with a sleight of hand familiar to those who enjoyed her previous collection, Her Body and Other Parties (2017). In the Dream House balances grief and fear, with an undertone of gratitude and relief at the opportunity for Machado voice her story.

Machado’s abusive ex never gets a name; she’s known only as ‘The woman in the Dream House.’ The house straddles reality and metaphor, sometimes uneasily. ‘The Dream House’ is, ostensibly, the couple’s Midwestern home. It is, as Machado urges us to believe, ‘as real as the book you are holding in your hands.’ But it’s a place of metaphor, too, representing how easily a place filled with the promise of domestic bliss can transform into a prison. The form of the house, ever-flexible, echoes and contrasts the constantly shifting forms Machado’s tale comprises. The house, and the woman in it, are solid and unchangeable, but the author tints and transform her memories through formal experimentation, refracting them through different genres, from erotica to stoner comedy.    

Every few pages Machado yanks her story in a new direction. There’s ‘Dream House as Bluebeard’ (after the folktale), ‘Dream House as Noir’ and ‘Dream House as Murder Mystery,’ to name a few. Sometimes she tells the story straightforwardly, as if pouring out her memories through a sieve shaped like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Sometimes, the form runs away with us. On such occasions, her prose lacks the tautness of her previous fiction, weighed down with tired, over-stretched descriptions (‘It was late spring, and the trees were electric, new-growth neon green’). Instead, In the Dream House triumphs on a larger, structural scale. 

Machado twists the reader through heady allegory – or a choose-your-own-adventure novel – all in the service of demonstrating the on-again-off-again cycle of abusive relationships. The literary tricks she uses neither feel overwrought nor self-satisfied. By the end of the book you’ll wonder how anybody could have possibly told the story differently. Machado’s memoir is a model of discipline and of economy. Each twist and turn has a dual, sometimes triple purpose. This induces a mixture of hopefulness (maybe things will change next chapter!) and dread (no matter the genre, the plot remains the same). The reader, then, experiences a chilling emotional uncertainty, aptly reflecting the uncertainty of those experiencing emotional abuse.

On the one hand, the novel’s constant narrative shifts, tonally and between forms, are a joy to read. They repeatedly offer a sense of escape and opportunity, letting us know that, even in during its most harrowing moments, our story is bound to change in a page or two. On the other hand, they mock the false sense of security we allow ourselves. Though we slip from one form to the next, Machado’s situation inevitably remains the same.  Recounting a particularly vicious, one-sided fight, Machado remembers thinking that ‘this will be a good story, one day.’ In the moment, the thought sounds feeble – somewhere between hope and resignation – and yet we must acknowledge, it does make a good story, and a powerful one too. 

Machado effortlessly unites dry academic concepts with her freewheeling imagination. She has done so in her previous fiction, but it’s perhaps more prevalent here. Her experimental approach simultaneously evokes solace and hopelessness; it pushes us to keep going, to keep re-experiencing her past. Machado’s switching between forms and genres is exhilarating, despite its sombre context. But remove yourself from this immersion, and reflect on it at a distance, and you discover how head-swimmingly ambitious her goal is. Machado sets out to archive abuse in same-sex relationships during a time when most well-known narratives concerning domestic abuse are heteronormative (think: A Streetcar Named Desire, Gaslight, Big Little Lies)— not, as Machado is careful to add, because there is an absence of abuse among the LGBTQ community; but because people in power never seem to take notice, or, if they do, care enough to write about it. In any case, it is neither in the forefront of public consciousness nor adequately represented mainstream media.

Machado seeks these stories in every form she can think of. Where they seem impossible to find, Machado builds them herself, pressing her own experience into fairy tales and famous last words. In ‘Dream House as Queer Villainy’, she offers a kind of thesis, confessing to a fondness for the Disney villains of her childhood, despite the homophobia locked in their queer-coded behaviour. The problem, she clarifies, is not that bad characters sometimes act gay, it’s that the good characters never do. There is no range for queer characters to occupy and explore, no spectrum of goodness or complexity: ‘we deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.’ 

The concept of representation, to Machado, seems less like theory and more of a dare. If representation can be found, she’ll find it, and if it can’t be found, she’ll make it. She unearths hidden and missing narratives, both recontextualizing her own past and creating a new context for others who need it.

In the Dream House feels rare, new and elemental. It’s ambitious, formally and politically. Machado excels her ambitions to manifest her politics seamlessly through form. Too often, memoir and the confessional mode are considered narrowly focused, self-absorbed even. Whenever possible, Machado veers towards expansiveness, using memoir as a tool to gather others’ untold stories and free them from their silence.

Words by Eleanor Stern.

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