Carmen Maria Machado burst onto the literary scene two years ago with her debut short story collection, “Her Body and Other Parties,” which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in fiction and won the NBCC John Leonard Prize for best first book.
Her stories mined folk tales and popular culture’s underbelly to explore contemporary feminist themes such as body shaming and domestic violence. In her second book, the memoir, “In the Dream House,” Machado again uses the tropes of fairy tales to explore a contemporary story — that is, the two years she endured an abusive relationship while she was in graduate school.
Machado explores the many ways being in an abusive relationship is like being a character in a fairy tale — not the watered-down and sweetened versions of Mother Goose and Disney fame, but the oldest, scariest, most primal versions. She catalogs the experiences according to the “Motif-Index of Folk Literature,” complete with reference numbers in the footnotes. And while the form of her narrative is playful, as evoked by the chapter titles, (“Dream House” as Romance Novel, as Sci-Fi Thriller, as Choose Your Own Adventure, etc. ), the content of her story is serious.
“As we consider the forms intimate violence takes today,” Machado writes, “each new concept — the male victim, the female perpetrator, queer abusers’ and the queer abused — reveals itself as another ghost that has always been here, haunting the ruler’s house.”
As a survivor, Machado knows how terrifying it is to be in an abusive relationship. How crazymaking. How it destroys one’s self-esteem, even one’s sense of reality. She describes the descent into relationship hell vividly, all her skills as a fiction writer employed to make this work of memoir enthralling from a storytelling point of view:
“You buy a beer but sip from it only occasionally, because you want to be able to get in her car and drive at a moment’s notice ... You sit through a set before you begin to feel exhausted. Being exhausted is your second mistake.”
She also fully understands how being in a queer abusive relationship put her in a doubly vulnerable position. Society already stigmatized queer relationships. She had scant narratives to help her see or contextualize her own and few legal resources. “This is the curse of the queer woman — eternal liminality,” Machado writes.
Machado’s innovative memoir does not pull punches. She attacks stereotypes as well as societal stigmas that would keep her from telling her story. She agonizes about her own sense of failure. She opens her heart onto the page and does not try to hide the missed opportunities, mixed signals, confusion, lust, and all the messiness that can occur in any relationship and in particular one with a troubled but charismatic partner.
“In the Dream House” is a brilliant successor to her acclaimed short story collection and proves that Machado is just beginning to explore her many gifts as a writer.
May-lee Chai is author of the memoir “Hapa Girl,” and a short story collection, “Useful Phrases for Immigrants.”
In the Dream House
By: Carmen Maria Machado.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 247 pages, $26.
Event: Talk of the Stacks, 7 p.m. Nov. 18, Central Library, Nicollet Mall, Mpls.