Places are never just places in a piece of writing…The Dream House was never just the Dream House.
Picture a house. What do you see? The outside? The front door? A picket fence framing its border? Do you see the kitchen table or the wallpaper in the livingroom? The pigeons nesting in the roof? Can you conceive all of it at the same time? Are you standing inside or outside of it? Can you see it all at once, or is it in pieces? A house, a home, one’s cage, one’s castle is at once a single entity and a consolidation of separate elements: walls, rooms, functions, memories and fixtures. A house is at once a building and thousands of bricks, a whole in pieces, impossible to view in sum, as there’s always another side just around the corner.
This is the nature of the Dream House of Carmen Maria Machado’s story: transient, fragmented and incomplete. A memoir that is retold in swift and devastating pieces, each entities in their own right, which interact and interlock with one another, building memory upon memory until the whole becomes conceivable, like Seurat painting dot next to dot, next to dot. It is not just the idea of the ‘house’ that can be conceived in parts, but likewise memory, queerness and history. Each of these notions is also explored in the text, and each is also, subject to the restraints of conception: constrained by their vastness and by the subjectivity of those trying to define them.
In the Dream House, explores the unexplored, first in its recounting of the author’s experience of abuse within a queer relationship, but also, in bringing to light the mythologizing of queer identity. The book uncovers an absence of rounded, full representations of queer people in history. The pertinent prologue recognises that much is left behind in the recording of history, that the act of archiving is a political one, and therefore, that the memoir can serve as a means of bringing to light that which has remained in darkness. Machado not only brings to light the reality of abuse within queer relationships, but also contextualizes it throughout the text, exploring everything from queer villains, lesbian clichés, queer theory, fairy tale motifs, domestic abuse trials, MTV music videos to films. Her insightful reflections on queer representation, stereotyping and self-censorship mean that this book is both a literary and intellectual experience, with neither mode diminishing the other. It pounds on the door of the canon armed with a devastating realisation of an excluded voice and brings with it its own exposition.
The story is told in a series of short chapters, each experimenting with different narrative techniques. Their titles help to illustrate the variety and wit of Machado’s writing, for example: Dream House as Stoner Comedy, Dream House as Idiom, Dream House as an Exercise in Style, Dream house as Choose Your Own Adventure. Machado introduces herself in Dream House as an Exercise in Point of View, as a character split over two narrative modes, the first person ‘I’ of now, and the second person ‘you’ of her past, an anxious and affected version of herself whom we follow through the text, through her traumatic relationship.
We take off through snippets of memory, recalling Machado first meeting her unnamed partner (sometimes defined in the book via her blond hair), through the first throes of desire and to the front door of the dream house. At first the tone is light and airy, the relationship is an open one and the three women involved focus it around a house in Bloomington, Indiana where Machado will come to visit the blond as they begin their long-distance relationship. Soon the blond becomes ‘the woman in the dream house’. The text flows with the emotive everyday moments that characterise a new and passionate relationship: shared glances, long days in bed, and texts that make the stomach leap in exaltation.
She loves you. She loves your subtle, ineffable qualities…Sometimes when you catch her looking at you, you feel like the luckiest person in the world.
As the prose progresses in fragments things start to close in: they become a monogamous couple, things start to morph out of shape, the atmosphere becomes tenser and the dream house that seems so welcoming in the spring becomes dark and foreboding in the winter. The house they share together becomes an isolating entity, walls lock Machado in rather than hold her safe. Machado’s prose magnificently captures the increasing tension, paranoia and suffering; this is further explored in chapters that break off to examine motifs such as the haunted house, demonic possession and the undead.
She says she loves you, sometimes. She sees your qualities, and you should be ashamed of them…you catch her looking at you, you feel like she’s determining the best way to take you apart.
This increase in tension reads almost like a thriller, the short chapters mean the reader falls into the story quickly and it carries one along. At one point the reader becomes stuck in the Dream House like Machado, locked in through a circling text that one has to make a conscious effort to escape. We come to see a very different side of the woman in the Dream House. This book cleverly measures how Machado’s response is in part mediated by the absence of representation of stories like hers and we follow the text through to see how Machado finds her way out of the walls of the Dream House.
In the Dream House, is a brilliant and dizzying book. Its accomplishments lie not only in its novel form and its subtle, but devastating prose, but also in its possibilities. This text is both deeply personal and outwardly political. It is an honest portrayal of a topic not honestly or openly discussed. It might not have the ability to rectify this wrong on its own, but it has managed in a beautiful way to do what it set out to: to bring sound from the silence, to open up a door.
In The Dream House is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available here.
Carmen Maria Machado
Carmen Maria Machado is the author of Her Body and Other Parties, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is the writer-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where she lives with her wife.
Reviewed by J.A. Gregory
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