Our culture does not have an investment in helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean.
— Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
A book is not an idea. A book is a story — if done right. Ideas themselves are not original. There are a thousand ideas and every single one of them is informed by human consciousness and experience. Idea does not equal story. What makes a book original is the writer’s voice, the details that they capture and catalyze, the way they tell the story.
In no book has this been as evident to me as Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (Graywolf Press, November 2019). Machado’s first full-length published work is a speculative memoir. For those that are unfamiliar with this new genre, it is the combination of memoir (personal stories based on fact or experience) with elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction, and/or other speculative genres. The book is also a queer abuse narrative, a topic which is not altogether new but feels so because publishing has yet to catch up with the fact that these stories exist and need telling.
Much of the book is told in the second person — Machado referring to her past self. This adds a layer of distance to the narrative and builds on a familiar method often used in memoir. Machado mixes her signature dreamlike, witty, cutting, and altogether entrancing language with a history of domestic abuse in queer communities, from legal cases to literature, carefully curated in order to build upon her experiences. As Machado explains in the Afterword, “In the Dream House is by no means meant to be a comprehensive account of contemporary research about same-sex domestic abuse or its history. That book, as far as I can tell, has yet to be written.” And yet, In the Dream House manages to cover a great deal of ground in 242 pages.
In the Dream House is structured in a series of small chapters with headers like “Dream House as Star-Crossed Lovers,” “Dream House as Bluebeard,” “Dream House as High Fantasy,” “Dream House as Warning.” The title, we learn, serves both as a stand-in for Machado’s abusive ex-girlfriend, but also as a metaphor that works on several levels. It comes from Jacques Derrida’s definition of the Greek word for archive, arkheion, meaning “the house of the ruler.” Machado explains (in “Dream House as Prologue”) that this brings together two notions: That an archive is a place where history is stored but also it is under the control of someone — the archivist. As a personal archivist, Machado weaves the story of her abuse with facts about queer domestic abuse in general, many of which may be unfamiliar to readers but are brutally juxtaposed against the familiarity of Machado’s story.
If Machado’s book is a roadmap of queer domestic abuse, it is one that has all the expected curves and is dotted with familiar cities. Domestic abuse falls into patterns, which are comforting after the fact but not of much use to the person who is living in them. But a map is not a map until you are told how to use it, how to read a compass, how to measure miles in this reality. That is the purpose of the structure of this book — it teaches you how to read it.
I am still forming an opinion about how a memoir can be described as speculative. In the Dream House relies heavily on metaphor — and very often those metaphors are drawn from fairytales, SFF culture, geekery, and SFF literature. It skips from fairy tale motif (by use of footnotes that describe different motifs as they relate to the story) to Dr. Who to Star Trek. I’m not one of those who believe that all speculative genres can essentially be boiled down to metaphor. Sometimes the alien is not just a stand-in for all things foreign. Sometimes women actually do fly. Sometimes a monster is just a monster.
Let me be more clear. I believe the speculative part of this book is a mixture of metaphor, myth, fairytale, ghost story, horror, and personal journey above all else. We are all speculative on the inside — down in our bones. We are all living in a version of reality which might easily be disputed by someone on the other side of us — the person who sees with their own warped lens. Some of us just happen to dream with a speculative lens. The best example of this I can point out from In the Dream House is when, after the abuser has moved on, Machado’s past self relates being constantly crying — to the point where she begins to see a pool of water around her, filled with animals and other people. This is a familiar metaphor — the idea of drowning in sorrow. If you think of genre’s role as evoking a certain emotion, i.e. that fantasy is supposed to evoke escapism, science fiction wonder, mystery curiosity, and horror fear, then the best I can do is to say that this book is a combination of the above. But it is not reality. Its unreality is what best defines its speculative nature.
One of the most useful things I took away from this book is its discussion of queer culture as it relates to domestic abuse. Perhaps it did not need saying, but the truths that Machado drops feel necessary nevertheless. “Queer folks fail each other too,” Machado acknowledges. It is difficult to specify that which can also be universal. “Our culture does not have an investment in helping queer folks understand what their experiences mean.” But also, our culture does not discuss domestic abuse and how we are failing its survivors of all backgrounds — and how those most marginalized are often most stigmatized.
Machado makes striking connections — like the idea that in pop culture many queers are cast as villains and this is presented as a cliché, but as a whole, our society struggles to acknowledge that queer abusers exist because it would be “bad fucking PR.” Machado seems to raise the question of whether the queer community, seeking acceptance, may have swept these issues under the rug because it would be harder for people to accept queer relationships if they knew they could be breeding grounds for abuse. And yet, she also acknowledges that this is the goal of equality, to be treated like everyone else.
“…the nature of archival silence is that certain people’s narratives and their nuances are swallowed by history; we see only what pokes through because it is sufficiently salacious for the majority to pay attention.”
— Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
I have always struggled with the idea of sisterly bonding between women. This is because most of my relationships with women have been slippery and complicated, whereas I often find being with men to be simple, effortless, or at least a road I have a map to. As I read In the Dream House, I was reminded viscerally of the relationships I’ve had in the past in which my reading of the secret code between women was faulty. Other women seemed to be able to have femme connections without trauma. As a child, I wrote this off as being a tomboy, then as a teenager, I wondered if I intimidated women because of the good relationships I had with men, then, as a queer woman married to a man, the point seemed simply moot. I am still learning to forgive myself for simply not seeing the warning signs. Titles used to describe queer women like “butch” and “femme” or even never made much sense to me. People are complicated. They don’t fit easily into little checkboxes. Queer femininity is, and probably always will be for me, a strange lens. Or, as Machado puts it, “This is the curse of the queer woman — eternal liminality. You are two things, maybe even more; and you are neither.”
In the Dream House is a book unlike any other I have read this year. For its story, I am grateful. I believe that we need more genre-bending books, more books which look closely at different types of queer experiences, and more Carmen Maria Machado, please.
Interstellar Flight Magazine publishes essays on what’s new in the world of speculative genres. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, we need “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We use affiliate links and Patreon to pay our writers a fair wage. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.