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8 January 2020

Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House: untamed, original and brilliantly unclassifiable

This is a memoir of a tormented, abusive relationship she experienced with a woman, compelling as any thriller.

By Catherine Taylor

Carmen Maria Machado was hailed as a modern-day Angela Carter on the publication of her first collection of stories, Her Body and Other Parties, in 2017. Provocative, sensual and gender- and genre-defying, with strong elements of science fiction and gothic horror, its eight fabular tales smouldered defiantly. They pushed at political and psychological boundaries, acknowledging a debt not only to conventional narrative structure but also to fan fiction and urban myth. Through creating often garishly uncomfortable scenarios in prose that was never less than elegant, Machado quickly achieved cult status – as well as being a finalist for several major literary prizes.

Machado’s follow-up is a different beast – one that is just as untamed, original and brilliantly unclassifiable. Instead of a novel, as traditionally anticipated in the wake of a short fiction debut, she has written In the Dream House, a memoir of a tormented, abusive relationship she experienced with a woman, from electrifying first meeting to the shock of discovery that the love object was not all they first appeared to be.

In painful, discursive style, with short, densely packed chapters (frequently so brief they read like vignettes), Machado deconstructs the dream house (alternately a fairy-tale castle, or a prison, but never a home) both as the setting in which the relationship took place and as the blood and bones of the relationship itself. It dominates each section title – “Dream House As Memory Palace”, “Dream House as Soap Opera”, “Dream House as Diagnosis”, and so on – using objectivity, legal cases, literature and analysis as a means for Machado to rebuild herself. This dismantling and reassembling also acts as a form of therapy. In case this sounds too much like severe sociological tract, Machado’s approach is as compelling as any thriller, playful in its self-discovery, and intriguing in its references to, for example, the stereotyped villainesses of Disney films, such as Cruella de Vil.

In Her Bodies and Other Parties, Machado questioned traditional readings of situations: “That may not be the version of the story you’re familiar with. But I assure you, it’s the one you need to know.” This argument is carried through the dark, messy underworld of In the Dream House: “The abused woman has certainly been around as long as human beings have been capable of psychological manipulation and interpersonal violence, but as a generally understood concept it – and she – did not exist until about 50 years ago. The conversation about domestic abuse within queer communities is even newer, and even more shadowed.”

The “queer abused”, Machado, goes on, “reveals itself as another ghost that has always been there”. This is important. Historically, if a love affair is viewed societally as taboo, and consequently by those conducting it as so, then the disclosure of violence within it also becomes prohibited – to the advantage of the abuser. Hence “the ghost”.

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Machado describes the inevitable splitting of a personality under extreme duress, into the public and the private spheres. Her initial encounter with her future abuser is a classic coup de foudre occurring in ordinary surroundings – “on a weeknight… in a diner in Iowa City”. The woman has “white blonde-hair… a dazzling smile, a raspy voice”. Many dream house chapters later, that dazzling smile is reduced to “a red hole” of wearily familiar vindictive screaming. Seconds later, having achieved the desired effect of confusion and misery, the abuser asks the author: “Why are you crying?… in a voice so sweet your heart splits open like a peach.” Machado does not shrink from acknowledging the dichotomy of continuing to love and desire a person in such circumstances.

Despite announcing at the beginning of the book that she will not deliver a prologue, Machado immediately does just that. It’s an amusing yet deadly serious device, a proclamation: what is hidden must be uncovered, as in an archive: “The word archive, Jacques Derrida tells us, comes from the ancient Greek… arkheion, ‘the house of the ruler’.” Machado moves into the ruler’s – her lover’s – house, the dream house, in more ways than she imagined. The book grows more surreal and frightening as the relationship reaches its malign apotheosis, with chapters headed “Murder Mystery”, or “Cabin in the Woods”.

Machado is eventually saved by “Dream House as Plot Twist”, in which, after a lengthy disentanglement from toxicity, she meets the woman to whom she is now married. However, the warning in this brave, experimentally wrought work, is explicit: the dream house is always there, waiting. 

In the Dream House
Carmen Maria Machado
Serpent’s Tail, 304pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran