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Carmen Maria Machado’s Genre-Bending Memoir Will Complicate Your Ideas of Queerness

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In Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House, the titular home comes to represent all the different parts of her story. It is the book’s primary setting—a backdrop to the abuse Machado experienced during her first relationship with a woman—and one of its main characters, too. The house also represents a false promise: a place where relationships among queer people can exist without flaw. (Any idealized perception of queer relationships is complicated and dismantled by Machado’s writing.) Though its meaning shifts over the course of Machado’s delicately written memoir, one thing is made clear to us: The Dream House is quite real. In a section titled “Dream House as Not a Metaphor,” Machado writes, “If I cared to, I could give you its address, and you could drive there in your own car and sit in front of that Dream House and try to imagine the things that have happened inside.” With this provcation comes a warning. “I wouldn’t recommend it,” she writes. “But you could. No one would stop you.”

What follows is an in-depth tour of the Dream House, in which Machado shares scenes from her life with her first girlfriend—another writer who remains unnamed throughout the book. Their relationship begins as a polyamorous affair between the woman, Machado, and Val (Machado’s present-day wife), until the woman decides to break things off with Val. The early phases of dating, for Machado, represented a sense of relief, or an affirmation after years of searching for someone. “You are lucky to have met her,” she writes. “You are not some weird, desperate mess. You are wanted.” And still, she hints at the looming darkness. After the woman asks if they can become monogamous, Machado confesses, “You laugh and nod and kiss her, as if her love for you has sharpened and pinned you to a wall.”

The through-line narrative of their relationship is rendered in a series of vignettes that detail accounts of verbal and emotional abuse, intimidation, manipulation, and deception. These are written in the second person, a choice Machado lays out in a section titled “Dream House as an Exercise in Point of View,” which explains how the “assured, confident woman” she identifies as before and after this relationship is “cleaved: a neat lop that took first person…away from second.” It’s an effective device that draws us in as not readers or voyeurs, but participants. Interspersed between these vignettes are flashes to Machado’s life as a young girl and a teenager and her life after the relationship, as a writer making sense of her past experiences.

There are also moments of cultural criticism, tracing, for instance, the historical context and significance of terms like “gaslighting,” or how new wave band ’Til Tuesday’s record label suppressed lesbian references in their seminal song “Voices Carry.” Machado also incorporates footnotes annotating the main text with tropes identified in Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, a multivolume catalog of folkloric elements, which, in tandem with occasional Gothic descriptions of the Dream House and allegorical writing, heighten the twisted fantasy of her narrative. This blending of genres and forms is a familiar trait in Machado’s writing. In her 2017 short-fiction collection, Her Bodies and Other Parties, Machado combines genres like horror, erotica, and speculative fiction to delve into the trauma and everyday physical, sexual, and psychological violence women endure. She approaches her memoir with a similar interest in combining genres; in using all the tools in her kit, she provides a new blueprint for writing about queer abuse.

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Thanks !

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