Review of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House

by Philip Sayers

Philip Sayers is an editor, teacher, and writer based in Toronto. His work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Walrus, and Electric Literature.

In the Dream House
Carmen Maria Machado
Penguin Random House
2019, 264 pp., $24.95

 

Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House consists of 146 chapters, split across five sections. The shortest is eight words long. The longest, at least in terms of page count, is 15 pages; this one is also my favourite. There are a total of eight epigraphs (one at the start of each section, plus three at the very beginning). There are also 54 footnotes.

Of the 146 chapters, around 60 could be described as relatively conventional, scene-based memoir: they tell, in more or less chronological order, the story of a relationship, between the author and her unnamed, abusive girlfriend, who’s referred to only as the woman from the Dream House. These sections are written in the second person. Another 40 or so (mostly also in the second person) provide context and reflection: memories from Machado’s childhood, for example. That takes you to about 100. Of the 46 that remain, about 17, depending on where you draw the lines, are essays (sometimes split across two or three chapters), on a range of subjects that frame the book’s concerns: gaslighting and the films that gave rise to the term, the gothic, the elusive archive of writing about queer domestic abuse. The rest fall somewhere between the second and third categories: they’re driven by ideas rather than narrative, they’re usually in the first person, and they’re often concerned with questions of form and method—they’re about Machado’s writing process, and about the key metaphors that structure the book: dreams, houses, and the dream house.

… one common response to texts that are made up of small, discrete elements is to catalogue and categorize them, to pick out favourites, and to gather them together into something that feels like a coherent whole.

Compiling this kind of catalogue feels like a natural response to a text like In the Dream House. It’s a book that consists of small pieces, and whilst its elements aren’t as disconnected as, say, the fragments of Sappho (which provide one of those eight epigraphs), one common response to texts that are made up of small, discrete elements is to catalogue and categorize them, to pick out favourites, and to gather them together into something that feels like a coherent whole. As Maggie Nelson puts it, “the mind will always work overtime to put disparate things together.” (Nelson is a useful guide here: she shares a publisher—Graywolf Press—with Machado and provides, in Bluets and The Argonauts, two precedents for In the Dream House’s form of queer memoir-in-pieces.)

In fact, In the Dream House does some of that assembly work for you: every piece is categorized, given a title that denotes the form, genre, or trope that that particular chapter is working with (overture, prologue, Bildungsroman, fantasy, double cross, unreliable narrator, Choose Your Own Adventure). In some cases, the commitment to the category is total: in the Choose Your Own Adventure chapter (the 15-pager; my favourite) you’re presented with choices and directed to different pages according to your response. In others, the connection is more a matter of content than form: the “Sci-Fi Thriller” chapter isn’t really an attempt to tell the story of the relationship as a sci-fi thriller, but rather an account of a particular moment in the relationship during which Machado and her roommates were watching the 1990 near-death-experience movie Flatliners.

If describing In the Dream House’s intricate structure makes the book sound difficult, though, it shouldn’t. I’ve never bought the commonplace idea that “fragmentary” and “formally experimental”—two fair descriptors for In the Dream House—are necessarily at odds with compulsive readerly pleasure. Sure, there are plenty of fragment-driven books across genres and periods that ask readers to improvise new ways of making meaning, and that work requires attention and commitment: Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project is not a beach read. But I tend to agree with Nelson that the human mind is remarkably good at building bridges: there’s nothing inherently more difficult about a book made up of lots of small pieces compared to a book that presents itself as one continuous whole. And in the last decade or so, whether it’s because literature has started to imitate the discontinuous flow of the newsfeed or simply because our world feels especially broken right now, enough ruptured, fragmentary texts have found sizeable readerships to confirm this impression.

These fragmentary narratives assume a number of guises. On the one hand, there’ve been small-press breakout successes—often published by Graywolf—like Nelson’s The Argonauts and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (going even deeper into the Minneapolis indie’s catalogue, look to the work of Eula Biss, Sarah Manguso, and other lyric essayists). On the other hand, splintered narratives are also firmly in the mainstream: N. K. Jemisin’s Hugo-winning bestseller The Fifth Season (the first of her Broken Earth trilogy) splits its protagonist’s story into three strands (one of them told in the second person). This rift in the book’s architecture functions as “a formal echo of [the main character’s] broken world” (that’s Raffi Khatchadourian, in a recent New Yorker profile of Jemisin). On top of that, there’s been what’s felt like an explosion of short-chaptered, scene-driven memoirs, often by queer writers, like Saeed Jones’s How We Fight for Our Lives and Roxane Gay’s Hunger. In the Dream House is poised pretty neatly between these three groupings: it’s an experimental, genre-flexible work of creative non-fiction in the Graywolf mould, it’s a splintered story (which employs plenty of second-person narration) by a writer who’s a master of genre fiction, and it’s a propulsive queer memoir with a strong sense of scene and setting that focuses more on individual moments than on the longer arc of a life. Which is also to say that it’s extremely readable.

Like In the Dream House, many if not most of these fragmented texts deal with content that’s traumatic, at the individual, collective, or planetary scale. The idea that when we feel broken, we tell broken stories is itself a literary trope at this point. A World War has shattered your sense of the continuity of culture: you write The Waste Land. You’re devastated by the end of a romantic relationship: Bluets. The planet itself is on the verge of collapse: the Broken Earth trilogy. Machado—as astute an observer of tropes as any—knows this, of course. She tells us how, during her “time in the Dream House” (the duration of the abusive relationship) she “begin[s] to experiment with fragmentation.” The formal play provides a thrill, and some of the stories she refers to writing during this period ended up as highlights of her 2017 short fiction collection (also for Graywolf), Her Body and Other Parties. But, she says, despite the elaborate justifications she provides to others for these formal experiments, “you can’t bring yourself to say what you really think: I broke the stories down because I was breaking down and didn’t know what else to do.”

Why does In the Dream House double down on fragmentation and formal experiment? And why doesn’t it feel like a gimmick? How come it works as well as it does?

This comment comes in a chapter headed “Dream House as Exercise in Style.” The implication is that there’s something ultimately slightly hollow about the fragmented work Machado was producing at the time—that in retrospect, those stories felt like formulaic formalism, privileging style at the expense of substance. The question, then: why is In the Dream House also in some sense an exercise in style—or rather 146 of them? I don’t mean this as a criticism: In the Dream House never felt to me like empty formal play. But it’s a question that seems important to address if we’re to understand the book’s project. Why does In the Dream House double down on fragmentation and formal experiment? And why doesn’t it feel like a gimmick? How come it works as well as it does?

There are a few possible answers. One might be that here, unlike in some of Machado’s early experiments, the form consciously matches the content, because this is a story about a traumatic, shattering experience. But neatly lining up method and material doesn’t always make for good writing: the internet is full of fragmented personal essays about traumatic experiences, few of which escape the shadow of their influences (Nelson, Gay). This line of thinking also seems unfair to Machado’s early stories: “Inventory,” for example—first published in 2013 before being collected in Her Body—applies the list form to a post-apocalyptic story to potent effect; Machado has long excelled at finding precisely the right formal angle from which to approach her subject matter.

Another response might be that, actually, In the Dream House is less fragmented than it initially appears. Remember, around 100 of its chapters consist of the stuff of conventional memoirs: chronological narrative, interspersed with reflection. But, while I think that’s true, it doesn’t account for the book’s fundamental conceit: the fact that each chapter is titled “Dream House as [trope/genre].”

The best way I’ve found to understand the work that the book’s conceit does is through the part of it that’s easiest to ignore: the word “as.” The “as” in those chapter titles means something like “as if”: it expresses a decision to proceed with the chapter as if it were a Bildungsroman, as if it were told by an unreliable narrator, as if it were a work of sci-fi or fantasy. In the Dream House is all and none of these, but each time it begins a chapter, it commits itself to the premise, to the experiment. Another way to put this would be to say that the entire book takes place in the grammatical mood of the subjunctive. The subjunctive is the mood of the verb “were” in the phrase “as if it were.” It’s the mood that historian and literary scholar Saidiya Hartman (in a passage Machado quotes in “Dream House as Prologue”) characterizes as the mood of “doubts, wishes, and possibilities.” It’s the mood of dreams, and of the dream house. It’s the mood of fantasy—in that sense, In the Dream House really is a work of fantasy.

In the Dream House takes place under the sign of fantasy and speculation in part because that’s the necessary mode of writing about a subject, like queer domestic abuse, with an ephemeral archive. Part of what’s maddening isn’t just the lack of definitive, indisputable evidence (there are no “witness statements from the strangers who anxiously looked at us sideways in public places”); it’s the fact that there’s not yet an established canon of literature on the subject of intimate partner violence and abuse between those who share gender identities, and therefore no clear and familiar story. Everything is subject to doubt, to wishes, and to possibilities—it’s all in the subjunctive.

In the Dream House is also written in the subjunctive because utopian romantic fantasy is, Machado writes, “the defining cliché of female queerness.” Part of what sustains romantic relationships between women, even a relationship that turns destructive, is the fantasy of having found a dream house outside of the cruelty of patriarchy. Hence the chapter “Dream House as Lesson in the Subjunctive,” which recounts all the reasons why life in the Dream House is unsustainable before concluding (in the subjunctive), “but sure, the two of you could raise children here.”

It’s written partly with the hope that, by assembling a tangible archive, there might be better tools for coping with the impact of queer domestic abuse.

And In the Dream House is a work of subjunctive, speculative fantasy because (like Saidiya Hartman’s speculative historical writing in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, her 2019 book about the alternative ways of living imagined by young Black women at the turn of the twentieth century), it’s invested in thinking about how things could still be otherwise. It’s written partly with the hope that, by assembling a tangible archive, there might be better tools for coping with the impact of queer domestic abuse. “I imagine,” Machado writes, “that, one day, I will invite young queers over for tea and cheese platters and advice, and I will be able to tell them: you can be hurt by people who look just like you.”

In the Dream House works so well not simply because it’s a shattered narrative about a shattering experience: we have plenty of those already, good and bad. It works, in a word, because of its mood. It works because of its commitment to proceeding as if it were: as if it were the case that a genre or trope could adequately grasp Machado’s elusive subject matter, as if it were the case that it was ever really possible to escape oppressive power relations—and as if, as well it could be, someday queer domestic abuse might be, if not avoidable, then at least more recognizable.




Philip Sayers is an editor, teacher, and writer based in Toronto. His work has previously appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Walrus, and Electric Literature.

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