The most impressive and perhaps pleasurable quality of Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House is the scope of its ambition. It is offered (and marketed) as a memoir, a ground-breaking work about homosexual abuse. The most moving and timely argument of the work is to apply conventional social mores to homosexual relationships so that they do not have to hide abuse for the good of the queer community’s image. Machado attempts to break a vicious catch-22, noting “In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity . . . all the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail” (228). These qualities, certainly central, have garnered the book a great deal of attention. This reader encountered his first review of the memoir in The Economist, and the volume has enjoyed a second release in the U.K. at the start of 2020.
However, from the first pages, the reader sees that the book contains many books.
Machado embraces the Melvillian aesthetic to represent a single human experience in its multiplicity of impressions and apprehensions in order to convey the figured reality of homosexual abuse and the emotional and psychological forces that, in the situation of a relationship with a dysfunctional person, pull the heart in a hundred different ways at once. The abused person makes desperate attempts to navigate rejection, prospects of loneliness, humiliation, fear, disappointment, verbal and psychological assaults, and the daunting prospect of turning away from even a destructive relationship and taking up the staggering negotiations one must engage in the wake of its failure—the admission that love was not enough, the breaking of settled habits by which so much of life is managed, the inevitable encounter with loneliness, the experience of turning away from the physical realities of abuse toward the metaphysical realities of oblivion, which is a bit like abandoning a leaky skiff and plunging into the vast waters in the hope of safety and security, somewhere, somehow. It is a great subject, and Machado’s successes in grappling with it make Dream House an extremely human book.
Machado’s complex structure accounts for the success of so many of her thematic intentions. There are around 146 sections in the book, ranging in length from one sentence to several pages, and each begins with the phrase “Dream House as.” It is this organization that casts each narrative unit as a simile, which allows the author to layer its emotional and psychological perspectives on the central experience—the abusive relationship. There is, for instance, Dream House as Utopia, which reads in its entirety: “Bloomington: even the name is a promise. (Living, unfurling, soft in your mouth.)” The short section punctuates the story with the unleashed joy of the reverie, with hope and sensuality and growth. Ten pages or so down the narrative road, there is Dream House as American Gothic. The title puts the reader in mind of the painting by Grant Wood, but leaps over that impression, moving from that vivid cultural image to a series of stories in post-war film in the mode of gothic romance. We begin with definitions: “‘ Horror,’ film theorist Mary Ann Doane writes, ‘which should by rights be external to domesticity, infiltrates the home'” (76). Machado notes “a major problem with the gothic; it is by nature heteronormative” (and thus the usefulness of the Grant Wood image). Out of this scholarly aesthetic analysis with its distant tone, the speaking voice turns toward the personal. “I didn’t know her, not really, until I did” (77). Machado is quite deft at tonal orchestrations such as these that intensify feeling and lend it profundity.
The structure also provides the framework in which Machado employs a complex point of view. The first person is usually reserved for moments well before or after the central narrative, the moments of greatest distance, and is used the least. Machado relies most on the second and third persons. She uses the second person to stand for the protagonist in the past, participating in the relationship with her abuser, and she uses the third person in the narrative present to speak to the reader as the protagonist reflects back on her past. The former creates the intensity of the moment, the gasping horror of the violence. The latter, though often anguished, is more removed and restrained. It is as if the second person is always drowning, and the third is allowed to surface for a quick breath. It is not difficult to see how this approach to the point of view creates a varied texture, a range of voices, and tonal inflections with the complexity of a musical score. For instance, in Dream House as Legacy, Machado relates a scene in while the abuser, off on vacation with her parents, calls her on the phone. When Machado refuses to make out with her on the phone, the abuser immediately breaks up with her. “You are sobbing in disbelief, your body aching to form the whiplash turn of the conversation” (113). In the next section, Dream House as Word Problem, the writer shifts the tone: “Okay, so, there’s this woman”. . . and proceeds to tell the outline of the situation, how Machado drives from Iowa City to Bloomington “408 miles away. To be yelled at for five days,” concluding, “How many months will it take her to come to terms with the fact that she functionally did this to herself” (115)?
Machado’s employment of the second person is exceedingly effective. It does two things simultaneously. It collapses the psychological distance between the reader and subject yet allows for greater emotional distance between the persona and the subject, thus allowing the writer a more functional control over the material, a greater depth of self-analysis, and a surer approach to building sentiment out of material that could easily devolve into the sentimental. For example, here is a short passage from the section Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure®:
That night, she fucks you as you lie there mutely, praying for it to be over, praying she won’t notice you’re gone. You have voided your body so many times by now that it is a force of habit, reflexive as a sigh; it reminds you of your first boyfriend who fucked you while watching porn—how he rutted and rutted and then every so often lifted the remote to rewind something you couldn’t see (171).
No detail of craftworks in isolation, of course. Here, in conjunction with the point of view, the detail of rewinding functions to generate a sense of hopelessness in the act of analyzing one’s past. Along with its expressive functions, the point of view also moderates the personal, sexual, and emotionally harrowing subject matter, the tone engaging the reader in a relationship that is both formal and stately, guiding him through the steps of the narrative in an elegant quadrillion.
There are flaws in the book, of course. “Genius is full of trash,” after all. There is a great deal of sobbing and weeping in the story, and it can occasionally strike the reader as lugubrious. The mythopoetic context for the narrative is maintained by copious footnotes, which clog page after page. The first few chapters provide a slow start as Machado carefully constructs a theoretical framework for the narrative with material drawn from literary and queer theory, background about friends, childhood, gym class, early jobs, and finally Dream House as Inciting Incident gets the story off and running at its fierce, honest pace. But none of the faults gets in the way of the voice or the vision. The story is clear-eyed and courageous in its self-evaluation. In Dream House, as Ending, Machado writes, “That there’s a real ending to anything is, I’m pretty sure, the lie of all autobiographical writing. You have to choose to stop somewhere. You have to let the reader go” (239). Yet the reader, being so relinquished, is certain that even if the story has stopped, he finds himself inhabiting an unforeseen destination, where he is made glad by the truths he has encountered along the way.