SCAN Book Club: Into the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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When does a dream become no dream at all?

When do real nightmares begin?

And when do you realise it’s too late to wake up?

Memoirs have, historically, leaned towards the formulaic. Anyone’s “life story”, if they can help it or not, still must slip one way or another into a pattern. The trace elements of progression, plotting, and even the dreaded theme, all include themselves for the sake of just packing and tagging the thing. Despite all that, their structure gives us direction, and their resolution, even if ending in the here and now, gives us gratification. In the Dream House almost has all those things. It is unique – and unsettling – in that it does not quite.

While In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado wryly comments, ‘is by no means meant to be a comprehensive account of contemporary research about same-sex domestic abuse or its history.’ Its lyrical yet visceral and utterly unflinching recount of her own experience may prove in time to be just that. Without apology, every chapter is told in the coldest light of day. While horrific, In the Dream House doesn’t repel; while unique, it doesn’t play at grandeur; when vulnerable, it is far from alienating. Machado is not gratuitous, but neither does she tease. To do so would insult the honesty she dares to bring. Rather, she facets her modern parable as much as her winning short stories with a storm of citations, reframing her chronicle in the shadows of lit-crit to folklore. From Schrödinger to Star Trek, Chekhov’s Gun to a Choose Your Own Adventure, all to break the ice – however painfully – on a fear that rights, boundaries, and recognition, however hard-fought-for, can too easily slip away. Her greatest miracle is not to make this abstraction a gimmick, either, but a stage to its experiment.

“She leans away and looks at you with the kind of slow, reverent consideration you’d give to a painting. She strokes the soft inside of your wrist. You feel your heart beating somewhere far away as if it’s behind glass.” The effect is alien; the voice, dazzling. This is what it feels to be owned and to convince yourself you don’t know it. “I thought you died”, Machado tells her othered self, framed in her gallery, “but writing this, I’m not sure you did”. By its close, In the Dream House is less an exorcism of that past self than a reclamation of the time it took.

Her agenda brought together, is to help others find a way to tell their stories, not just to give caution with its own. “We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism“, she tells us, “because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.” In the same way, just because the stories say something should be a certain way, Machado makes us realise, does not mean it ever has been. 

I’ll be the first to admit my unease despite all this that Machado is addressing more significant questions than what she tells us. That there may be something murkier to the depths of our preconceptions than what we would be comfortable admitting is the spectre to this already harrowing yet effortlessly, insistently humane work of mastery at its most confident.

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