This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado.
Impossible to put down, even when it made my heart hurt/stomach turn/eyes sting with tears, Machado's memoir unfolds with the insidious, blooming ache of a bruise into something spectacular and necessary. One of the best books I’ve read this year, and ever. — Tove H.
For a long time, memoirs were predominantly like the lifetime achievement awards of the book world. Once a famous and accomplished person had reached the pinnacle of success, or skied past the pinnacle into their twilight career, they would write a kind of retrospective bildungsroman. From beloved Hollywood tell-alls like Tallulah
to new bestsellers like Elton John’s Me
, memoirs have long been a way for celebrities to open up to their fans while controlling their origin stories.
But if you’re a memoir reader — or a regular reader of our blog — you’ll have noticed that the genre is trending younger, and more diverse in both authorship and structure. Journalists and activists like Ta-Nehisi Coates
and Patrisse Khan-Cullors
, assault survivors like Chanel Miller
and Jeannie Vanasco
, and authors from other marginalized communities like Terese Marie Mailhot
and Sybil Lamb
are experimenting with form and the suspect enterprise of memoir itself to explore what it means to be at the precipice of adulthood or middle age, sifting — as Ben Lerner recently put it
— through the river of inherited language and trauma, and personal experience, to determine who they’ve become, why, and how.
Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House
is the latest and arguably most formally sophisticated entry into this new field of memoirs. A brilliant and incisive writer who leans heavily on the American lexicon of urban legend and popular culture to expose misogyny and its consequences, Machado’s work — both fictional and autobiographical — is predicated on the idea that because female experiences are so often denied authenticity or voice, the best way to expose them is through the unreal. In her short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties
, this takes the form of women who slowly become invisible or who are literally haunted by body fat. In her fascinating memoir, Machado expertly employs a dizzying array of literary tropes, folklore, mathematical principles, musical terms, locations, stereotypes, and physical experiences in a series of episodic vignettes to convey the surreality of life in an abusive lesbian relationship — a situation so underrepresented in American culture as to appear nonexistent.
The loaded notion of the “dream house,” with its connotations of prosperity and (heterosexual) domesticity, and Machado’s vignettes — “Dream House as Not a Metaphor,” “Dream House as High Fantasy,” “Dream House as Word Problem,” etc. — purposefully draw the reader’s attention to Machado’s difficulty in asserting the realness of her experience. Is the idea of the dream house open to queer couples? Is abuse possible within a lesbian relationship? Can memoir, a genre always dogged by accusations of falsehood, convey a historical truth? By filling her memoir with dozens of alternative forms of storytelling and making the surprising choice to write in the second person, Machado cleverly circumvents the typical charge made against memoir (Who could remember all that? It can’t possibly be true!) and implicates the reader in her project. When you imagine Machado’s experiences your own, they gain emotional power and plausibility.
The dedication to In the Dream House
reads, “If you need this book, it is for you.” In the Dream House
is certainly an important book for survivors of domestic abuse, particularly within lesbian relationships. But with its innovative approach to storytelling, mastery of form, and, most importantly, ferocious commitment to raising her voice in the service of others, Machado has written a book that is for everyone.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here