Years ago, I read Her Body and Other Parties. I’d come upon it entirely because of the title—I was working at the time on a dissertation about “the body” in English and French literature and film. The collection of short stories, it turns out, was far less foo-foo and pretentious than my dissertating, but entirely smarter and more meaningful to me. (I finished and still have the book; the dissertation, not so much.) Despite all that admiration, I allowed the book to languish for on my shelf (well-fanned, to be sure, but languishing still), along with most of the stuff related to my now-defunct academic career.
So when one of my favorite former students suggested I read In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, I didn’t make the connection that it was written by the very same author whose work I had loved so well years before. Instead, I went running into it with my eyes closed and my mind (as it so often is) completely blank. I tore through it. I mean, not literally—the book is a little worse for wear, but intact—but I could not stop reading.
In the Dream House is a memoir, the story of a queer woman’s relationship with an abusive partner. As is fitting for a narrative like this, it’s fragmented, told in tiny chapters (the longest of which is probably four pages, but the most common of which barely makes a single pages). It’s gulps of language, and it makes for a rhythm I first fell in love with in poetry. There’s a finished quality to each chapter, each one rounding itself into the perfect sigh of thought; but together, the chapters refuse to make a watertight whole and instead give the impression of bursts (emotion, language, action), snapshots, gut punches. Reading Dream House was very much like being pushed into the pool before I could get my shoes off. It was a violent, nasty little prank of which the teenagers at the public pool seemed very fond. Stooping too near the pool’s edge to remove your shoes made you vulnerable. So did being slight enough to be whisked over someone’s shoulder and carried to water’s edge and tossed in. (There’s a scene like this in the film Dans ma peau that guts me every time.) Dream House felt like this to me: a shockingly immediate opening-up of the narrative.
While that might sound like a criticism, it’s definitely not. One of the things that studying poetry teaches you is the ethos that form should be part and parcel of content—that the shape the art thing takes should be part of the meaning of the art thing—and this is true for Dream House. It is a story about the unmaking of a woman, how her partner systematically blasted her into pieces, how the imperative of silence (laid out by a disbelieving and homophobic culture) weighed like a brick to keep her in her place. It is the story of why a woman might stay in such a relationship as much as it is the story of the ways in which we often go before truly leaving.
Any review of this book which characterizes it as being a memoir of an abusive relationship runs the risk of mischaracterizing the book, and I’m hoping you’ve read this far in the review so I can explain myself. Let me, as Obama used to say, be clear: it is the story of an abusive relationship. But it’s a story told differently than it’s usually told. Most narratives of abuse focus on what happened and how it made the subject feel. That’s certainly here, but it’s not the focus. The focus seems to be more about recreating the experience of being torn apart and reassembling oneself through the very form of the story and through the telling of it. In other words, this is not a tell-all, salacious narrative of a treacherous relationship. There’s plenty of those out there. What makes this imperative to read is that it is art made from such an experience. Your writing teacher in some grade or other was probably fond of exhorting you to “show, don’t tell.” But better writing such as this doesn’t even do that—if telling is at the bottom rung and showing is one step up, this functions at a higher level. It recreates the experience (of fragmentation, of confusion, of moorless desperation) while still insisting that you understand and make sense of it. It evokes. It pulls you in and won’t let go.
No. It throws you in.