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'In the Dream House' review: Haunting tale of a caustic relationship

In "In the Dream House," Carmen Maria Machado

In "In the Dream House," Carmen Maria Machado uises a haunted house as a metaphor for domestic abuse. Credit: Getty Images

Carmen Maria Machado opened her first book, the National Book Award finalist “Her Body and Other Parties: Stories”, with this epigraph:

"My body is a haunted

House that I am lost in.

There are no doors but there are knives

And a hundred windows."

                                    --Jacqi Germain

In her second book, the memoir "In the Dream House," Machado returns to the idea of the haunted house as metaphor, this time for domestic abuse, and makes us look through each of these windows in an effort to see the ghostly whole. Only this time, the hundreds of windows are her organizing principle, an index of literary forms, film theory, sociology, pop culture, science and more (section titles include "Dream House As Utopia," "Dream House as Noir," etc.).

There is no classic arc or a climbing tension artfully exploded into a sweeping denouement here; there is just Machado and her lover, a “pale and rail-thin” blonde who “had gone to Harvard, looked dapper in a blazer." The beginning is full of romantic promise: “Your female crushes were always floating past you, out of reach, but she touches your arm and looks directly at you and you feel like a child buying something with her own money for the first time.” Most of the book is in second person, at once creating a disassociating effect between the woman who was and the woman who is (“I left, and then lived”) while also placing the reader inescapably in the skin of the narrator.

"In the Dream House" gleamingly smashes our notion of memoir, relocating Machado’s genre-bending mastery from fiction to nonfiction. As with her short story collection, an intoxicating mix of fabulism and horror, sci-fi and gutting realism, Machado’s playfulness on the page is intoxicating. There is “Dream House as Stoner Comedy,” “Dream House as Déjà Vu” (twice) and even a 15-page “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure” section. Footnotes, most pulled from the "Motif-Index of Folk-Literature," underscore the often-surreal nature of the abuse cycle, while references to "Star Trek" and the film "Volcano" keep it grounded. Each form allows us to re-enter Machado’s dream house with her and watch as her lover crosses from sweet to feral, and as Machado’s life moves from fantasy to horror.

The book arranges itself into an accordion of pain and pleasure and fear, a card catalog of emotion and fact, certainty and doubt, as she adds flesh to a barely there skeleton: “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.” Machado is working to speak into a silence within a silence, because her abuser is also a woman. “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this.” Regardless of a reader’s orientation, it is impossible not to see yourself behind one of these hundreds of doors.

Machado’s choice of form is akin to Joan Wickersham’s masterful “The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order,” which takes the form of a literal index. In both instances, the traumatic nature of the subject matter — suicide and partner abuse — defies linearity. At first glance, this fragmentation looks willy-nilly, as if one could open the book to any page and read forward. But the overall effect is more that of a Pointillist painting, a snapped-together aha moment from afar. “You feel like you can jump from one idea to the next, searching for an aggregate meaning. You know that if you break them and reposition them and unravel them and remove the gears you will be able to access their truths in a way you couldn’t before.”

At times, the dizzying opening and closing of doors to the different rooms in this book creates a fun house effect. The question of why she stayed (“You have forgotten that leaving is an option") churns through this book like an undertow, a kind of “constant, roving hunger.” The answer tumbles to the surface again and again, in different forms, yet with drumbeat insistence. “The diagnosis never changes. We will always be hungry, will always want. Our bodies and minds will always crave something, ever if we don’t recognize it.” The complicated knot of female desire is at the core of this book.

For all its flourish — "In the Dream House" opens with four epigraphs — the book’s first words are perhaps the most unadorned. “If you need this book, it is for you.” The you she is writing to, of course, is any reader stuck in the swirl; cycle of abuse. But this can be read a different way, since memoir, Machado claims, is a kind of resurrection. Ultimately, "In the Dream House" employs the kind of sci-fi time travel Machado is known for in her fiction; the other “you” on the page has managed to reach back in time and resurrect herself.

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