In The Dream House
Carmen Maria Machado
It is not brand new, though it is only just over a year old (released late 2019). Not a new release but it might be still new to you.
Let me first say that it’s been some time since I stayed up for a big chunk of the night to read a book in nearly one go. And most other times I’ve done it the end effect has been akin to homework (probably because I’m off to interview the author the next day. I rather like the cramming approach in that situation. It feels like the book is fresh in my head).
In The Dream House is a memoir. Though it feels like a whole new genre, or a mash-up of several. In The Dream House is devastating. And brilliant. And probably in equal doses.
It is a survivor’s story of domestic abuse, mostly verbal and emotional abuse. Some physical too.
The second-person narration means that, for the most part, it’s ‘You’ telling the story.
‘You’ writes very well.
Machado had a book of short stories on the market already – also brilliant, I’m told. In fact a skilled up-seller told me that, convincing me to walk away with Her Body and Other Parties the first time I tried to buy Dream House.
Even though the statute of limitations passes pretty quickly on plot-spoiling, I’m being careful to not say too much about what happens in the book. (It’s still all swimming in my head, to be fair). But what I’m most taken with is how it happens, by which I mean how the message is delivered.
In short chapters, sometimes a half a page – and in a couple of devastating situations just a single line – Machado walks us back through the relationship, from its happy earliest days to the realisation that the abuse was hiding there deep in the relationship, like other pesky third wheels such as alcoholism or a gambling problem. And then through actual examples.
She takes a location-idea and architectural structure and reframes that as the ‘place’ for this book – the Dream House. Her ex is now referred to only as the woman from the Dream House/the woman in the Dream House – necessary, because when the Dream House woman threatens Machado to never write about her, to never write about any of ‘this’, our author agrees. She’ll tell us, in these very pages, that “fear makes liars of us all”.
Every chapter mentions the Dream House in the title, reimagining it as a particular style of writing (Dream House as Soap Opera), playing with various techniques/tropes (Dream House as Chekhov’s Gun/Dream House as Chekhov’s Trigger), or locating us deep in the emotional baggage (Dream House as Dirty Laundry) and often the emotional response (Dream House as Second Chances). The Dream House is the cell where this all occurred, where it occurs again in the writing and for the writing.
The second-person narration technique is common in poetry, in some essays and short stories. It’s less common in novels, because it’s hard to sustain across longer works – but there are obviously some notable examples. Bright Lights, Big City has one of those backstories of being rejected a bunch of times because no one wanted to publish a second-person narrated novel, but Jay McInerney stuck to his guns, got the book published and had the hit of his career. The book he lives on and from to this day.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid features a slight twist on the second-person narration style, by basically blurring it with first-person, having his ‘I’ speak to the ‘you’ that is the reader; the book needs this to tell its conversation that we, as readers, are essentially eavesdropping in on, but are rather quickly made to feel complicit, quite deeply connected.
Second-person narration can be a risk but the payoff is that dream for a writer of deeply connecting the reader. We’re seeing it being used in memoir more often.
(My favourite book of last year was Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman – a brilliant piece of writing that is funny and sad and weird and wonderful and entirely told in the second person).
Machado opens and closes the book as herself, first person, the ‘I’ coming forward to own the story. But in the short chapters, and in the range of writing styles, in the black humour and deep soul clean she is giving us more than a memoir. Dream House reads, variously, as a personal letter, a set of short stories (prose poems, perhaps), a TED Talk transcript, and the dream-state hovers – making some of the action and emotion in the chapters so vivid. Because the deeper you go, the more specific you are in the telling of a story, the more universal it becomes.