Saturday, July 4, 2020

Carmen Maria Machado: In the Dream House

In the Dream House
 is an internal, intimate look at the narrator's experience of living in, and through, a chaotic and abusive relationship. Machado’s work finds footing through its focus on the destructive relationship, and the contextualizing enmeshment that defines the relationship and the narrator herself. While the weirdness of her first family and carousel of bad partners in the past is alluded to, they are always viewed through the lens of the crappy, abusive situation that takes 200 pages an a couple dozen points of view to describe. She is contextualizing the abusive relationship for the reader. This is why the second person works so well for this piece and why, when she references herself in the now, from a point of view of safety, she uses the first person, a shift of perspective to one that makes sense and is solid and separate. The second person inhabits the narrator’s role in the Dream House relation as a reflection, a receiver of events and of her identity in a shifting emotional landscape where the narrator’s separateness and voice is eroded, redefined as a factor of the whims of her partner. Machado gives the reader permission to treat the second person passages s surreal, a bit of magical realism with a possibly unreliable narrator Readers who have experienced contextualized abuse -- the environment of abuse, the abuse by inhabitation -- will immediately recognize the absolute honesty and authority of the passages. Yes, this is what it was like, to feel not myself, to feel crazy, to feel I had done it all wrong and caused everything to fall down again; I’m such a klutz; I ruin everything; please don’t tell anyone; and, especially, I don’t know how to get out now. Machado shines her light inside the taboo itself, which is why the folklore category footnotes are so powerful, contextualizing that which does not, cannot, make sense. Choosing footnotes, that live at the bottom of the page, as opposed to endnotes, is visually grounding.

Machado is spot on when she shifts to the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format; this is exactly what benign in an abusive relationship feels like: choose, and by the time the relationship has any real traction, the choices are always bad, but the narrator believes she has chosen badly, that it is she who is misguided, governed by bad instinct or a lack of guidance or both, where somehow it’s always as though you simply chose the wrong page or took the wrong turn, to missed that left at Albequerque and now you will be eaten by a Grue, and it’s all your fault, of course, because you chose, but you don’t know exactly how it’s your fault -- the choices seemed so incidental, trivial even! -- and most of all you don’t know how to get out of this chapter, back to the point in the Dragon's Lair where you can push the joystick to the left to cascade down the waterfall instead of right to go into the cave that is well-lit and dry but that has spiders and a monster and is a dead end. Relationship abuse is about being lost, alone in a world of unsuspected monstrosities and full of dead ends.[1] You come to believe you have no sense of direction.

Contextualized abuse is so surrealist it can only be told in reference to other stories -- with labels at the top to let the reader know where we are on this journey through a shifting landscape -- “Overture,” “Shipwreck,” “Sci-Fi Thriller,” “Libretto,” “Deja Vu.” Each of these pieces is a slice, a quantum of the experience of being lost inside the context, and never is any of these snapshots resolved. There is never a sense by the end of the short section of anything making sense. If anything, the progression seems to leave the reader with more questions, less resolution of the big picture; the map is obscured by the illumination of the detail. There is no legend.

I love the section where Machado gets told that the Dream House woman is in love with someone else and then goes to pick up card catalog cards that are being given away. “Thinking that you’d like to make a collage” while “looking like you’ve been forced to eat dogshit at gunpoint is exactly what living with abuse looks like, feels like. The trauma is fresh and it smacks right into the you that continues beyond the frame, the you who is being yourself with your projects and your everyday life, you as you are. You do not stop being you, and it feels like a betrayal of the relationship, you are the betrayer for being you, not the abuser or the abuse itself that booms like a drop of ink on the page, webbing out with tendrils that spoil the pristine whiteness, obliterate the possibility of perfection, spoiling the purity of the page and what might have been written. You keep being, your secret compulsive betrayal, the subversion that is yourself.

This is not the kind of story that has resolutions, though Machado does a neat job of ending on the wind but then letting the structure enfold her acknowledgments and end pages to include the ending on Val, on happiness found, on a magic trick for a fairy tale.  This is a story of nothing making sense.

I love the way Machado, in the first person, talks to the reader about the writing of the book in the middle of the story, not as an acknowledgment, but as part of the story itself. Yes. The Dream House changes everything and changes the way we create everything, and even the telling of the story has become part of the story itself.  

1. Also, I love the inclusion of the pages in the CYOA section that read “you cheated,” “you shouldn’t be on this page,” and, my favorite, “this would never have happened, who are you kidding?”