In the Dream House

Carmen Maria Machado

PUBLISHED 11.05.2019

01.27.2021 – 01.30.2021

GENRE Memoir


How to feel interactive distress

a full year later, i want to post the review i wrote up immediately after:

there is an exhibition by brilliant artist nari ward called “naturalization drawing table,”* wherein the viewer participates in a simulated bureaucracy of immigration, including getting their photo taken and filling out forms. it put me under stress to the point where i nervously asked the unsmiling museum staff-turned-photographer if my photo was acceptable (i had removed my glasses as instructed but put them on top of my head unthinkingly, then with a jolt suddenly took them off right before she raised the camera). i gave the museum staff-turned-form-person (?) my real drivers license, and they transcribed my real drivers license number to hang on the wall along with my photo. this was such a stupid move in many ways – i opened myself up to identity theft because of an art installation! – but it was so engrossing and so immersive i didn’t even think about that. the friend i was with at the time hated it – she didn’t like that this weird piece of art had stressed her out; i loved it for the same reason (and to be fair, i had spent a few months in a senior directed individual study trying to create a video installation that was immersive and destabilizing; it was mostly effective for a 21 year old i think).

in the dream house marks the second time i can remember a piece of art has thrown me directly into the action with the goal of this level of interactive distress. when i started the “choose your own adventure” chapter i dreaded it; i knew that there would be no good answers, that the act of flipping the pages would raise my heart rate, that the childhood tradition of keeping track of the pages where you made unsure decisions so you can redo them would be haunted by whatever i was about to read.

previously, i thought the bowling alley chapter was the most dread i’d ever felt during a nonfiction book of any kind. i was wrong; it was the scariest, but realizing you’re in a loop in the choose your own adventure made me physically nauseous. finding the impossible pages made me guilty, and i again felt sick when she says, flat-out, “did you think that by flipping through this chapter… you’d find some kind of relief?” i did, carmen. and i can’t tell if the “you” is me, or her, or neither. on the last page of the chapter, she uses “we,” and my head hurts.

i can’t tell if the “you” is me, or her, or neither. on the last page of the chapter, she uses “we,” and my head hurts.

there are times in this book where the first-person to second-person switches come fast (around page 141, i wrote down) and it tosses you around. it feels destabilizing, unmooring – which of course is the intention. (there is one chapter, “sanctuary,” that uses first person but takes place in the dream house, which makes it crystal-clear this is A Flashback, without needing any other indication; carmen’s mastery of POV is an entire essay waiting to happen.) there are parts of the book that lull you in a way; she writes it like a psychological thriller, exactly like the quote on the cover says, and it is propulsive, at times has the same propulsive narrative of fiction even – and then she throws in her own name and it jolts you back into reality, the re-realization that this is a memoir, this is real. (i should clarify here – readers who have been in abusive relationships will surely have a very, very different experience.)

there’s much more to write about this book; her use of genre is genius and the fragmentation that gives the narrative serves the same purpose. it pulls you in and pulls you apart, making the draw of the woman in the dream house understandable just as it scares you. it shows that reality cannot fit in a single narrative; that we can only fashion a story out of it if you tear it into pieces and then fit them back together. (the “plot twist” made me cry, because it is what i would expect out of a story – a just ending, a sense of closure, and while i think carmen makes a point that it didn’t all “work out,” by that point i felt close enough to her that that spark of joy for me was overwhelming.) it is a masterclass of show not tell.

it lays bare the struggle she felt about being in a queer relationship like this – i know a fraction of this feeling. (an aside: ashkenazi jews say “a shanda fur de goyim,” when the behavior of a jew makes us all look bad. even in this book, the woman in the dream house manipulates carmen using yom kippur, and my heart broke; i have no right to feel this way and it’s not about me at all, but using something so sacred as a weapon? the stomach drop of “i hate that she was jewish on top of everything”? carmen literally talks about exactly that feeling of “bad pr” just two chapters later.)

however, i will (as i often say) leave it to others to expand on those pieces. i think it is enough for me to say this was truly a masterpiece, a word i don’t use lightly. it was genius. it was tender and heartbreaking at the same time that it was harsh, elegiac and gorgeous at the same time that it was ugly and difficult, educational and immersive. disturbing, but hopeful sometimes. all at once.

the truth is scarier – and more powerful here – than fiction

at the end of the nari ward installation, you could get (either free or for a nominal price, i can’t remember – i was so dazed after the experience that i took it or bought it in a cloud of relief and elation) a sheaf of his drawings: a copy of a set of forms on which he had doodled dizzying lines and curls, in a manila envelope. lasting beauty for me, from going through a minuscule fraction of the trauma of the united states immigration experience. in the dream house is a beautiful book – that i as the reader get to experience, seeing the outside of the outside of carmen’s relationship. i feel guilty, voyeuristic, like i’m taking advantage, at the same time that i feel all the usual feelings when reading a book of this caliber and impact (impressed, dazed, grateful). and so, i ended this book in a muddle. normally that’s a bad sign, but here it was satisfying. it is a compliment; the old adage is true that the truth is scarier – and more powerful here – than fiction.

*i am actually in this photo!