Carmen Maria Machado, “In the Dream House” (2019) (narrated by the author) – Much of the time, great works come like bolts out of the blue, with no really visible antecedents: “Astral Weeks,” like I talked about last week, DuBois’s “Black Reconstruction.” Other times, they grow out of unlikely hummus. “In the Dream House” belongs, to my mind anyway, to the second category: it is the millennial confessional essay, not a form I generally respond well to, raised to something both beyond and in keeping with the boundaries of the form.
This is an account of Machado’s emotionally abusive relationship with an unnamed woman, written in scores of tiny chapters, some only a sentence or so long. Machado processes what happens to her through the lens of criticism. Each chapter examines her relationship through a genre or trope, all harkening back to a central trope of the “dream house,” the spaces of her relationship, physically split between old houses in midwestern college towns, Iowa City and Bloomington, Indiana and figuratively inhabiting the utopian dream of lesbian relationships- all the good parts of love, none of the bullshit men bring with them.
How much detail of the abuse does it make sense to go into? In one harrowing chapter (there are many), Machado details how she had a sick desire for her abuse to have been more physical, with bruises she could point to. As it stood, the emotional abuse she sustained, the constant undermining of her sense of self and nurturance of a sick kind of dependence on another’s caprice, was bad enough for this reader. Machado manages emotional space in this work like the best prizefighters manage space in the ring. The examination of her relationship through genre and trope would seem to keep the whole thing at least an arm’s length. But, and perhaps this is my own methods of emotional distancing talking, I found the mechanism supremely relatable and capable of delivering devastating emotional payloads. The distancing, and Machado’s honesty about it, is its own form of closeness.
Me and my war and fighting metaphors… In the introduction, Machado writes, “if you need this book, it is for you.” Well, I don’t know if I need this book, or if it is “for me” in the sense that phrase is generally meant these days. Machado was born within a year of me, we are both nerds whose main medium is the English language… and there the resemblances leave off. Beyond the obvious demographic differences, romantic relationships have played a pretty small role in my life. My boundaries are high, and perhaps I’ve traded some degree of interpersonal connection to avoid what seems to me dramatics and irrational behavior. That’s about as confessional as I feel like getting. One of the points of literature is to nurture empathy. Sometimes, this project turns inward, curdles. Sometimes, I resist literature having a point, in part for the same reasons I avoid some kinds of personal connection- a disinclination to having others meddle in my head. All that said, I am glad I opened myself to Machado’s writing to the extent I did. *****