Thursday, October 29, 2020

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Back in 2018, a science fiction/fantasy book discussion podcast I listened to recommended Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties highly, in tones that put her on the same plane as Kelly Link or George Saunders. And that high praise was earned; while I may prefer those other two, Machado is playing on the same field and even the stories that didn’t immediately work for me won me over by their endings. But the standout of the bunch, for me, was Especially Heinous in which she took the episode titles for the entire run of Law and Order SVU and used them as titles for recap-like mini chapters that became a perfect horror story. That the story was written during the events depicted in this memoir and the disjointed narrative matched her then current experience only made me appreciate it more.

In The Dream House is as good as that excellent story collection. It’s a heartbreaking memoir about Machado’s relationship with an abusive ex, and also an examination of the way abuse in lesbian relationships is perceived and reported to the extent that it is at all. The silence of the historical record on this is not something I'd contemplated before. Machado talks about “the violence of the archive” or “archival silence” on queer relationships in general, and their having an abusive component in particular. That concept really shook me. The idea that whole groups of people are just left out of the record is something I knew, but this brought it home more powerfully. I think of someone like my favorite writer, Herman Melville. I would be very surprised if he considered himself queer in the sense that it’s used today, that is, building an identity around it. But I would be even more surprised, having read several of his books, if he hadn’t had a lot of sex with men, especially during his years at sea. I need to read a biography of him before I make claims about the record of his experiences, but it wouldn’t even be a conversation if he hadn’t once been a bestselling writer and a later work reclaimed as a classic long after his death. But what about people with similar experiences who didn’t write a late acknowledged masterpiece? Machado does an excellent job teasing out the implications of this both in terms of the violence done to people and the way denying this part of human nature is problematic in its own right. Machado’s case was one of emotional violence unaccompanied by physical violence and the archives, according to her research (very thorough by the looks of the suggested additional reading list) is particularly silent in such cases. And yet it must have happened. Machado’s account of her own experiences is convincing and harrowing.

 And oddly, given the heaviness of the themes, it's very funny in places. It’s absolutely compelling. Like her stories, it is structurally innovative. Each chapter is labled “Dream House as _____” which allows her to jump from the personal narrative to the broader conversation by means of various tropes and metaphors. There’s a running gimmick (used in the positive sense) in which her reactions to the abuse are compared to tropes from a specific book on folklore. The prose is consistently very good. All in all an excellent memoir and book. I think I like it even more than her stories.

Highly Recommended 

Library Books and Everything Else 2020 24/35

Readathon 2/4

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