There’s a touch of Victor Frankenstein about every memoirist. Theirs is the toil of resurrection and reanimation. “Memoirists re-create the past, reconstruct dialogue,” acknowledges Carmen Maria Machado. “They summon meaning from events that have long been dormant. They braid the clays of memory and essay and fact and perception together, smash them into a ball, roll them flat. They manipulate time; resuscitate the dead.” In the Dream House, Machado’s own dazzling addition to the genre, is more spine-tinglingly monstrous than most.
It’s an account of an abusive relationship Machado was in with another woman when they were both graduate students. The “Dream House” of the title is both the real home Machado’s girlfriend (who is never named) lived in, and the fantasy of the life Machado thought they’d build together. So far so straightforward, but like Frankenstein’s monster, this book is an exercise in patchwork.
Each chapter takes the form of a different narrative trope: Dream House as… myth, sci-fi thriller, choose your own adventure, comedy of errors, soap opera, cautionary tale, ad infinitum. Break it down, and it sounds gimmicky: the artifice of these kaleidoscopic vignettes; the fact Machado writes in the notoriously tricky second person, addressing (with a mixture of sympathy and admonishment) her younger self, “always anxious and vibrating like a too-small dog”; not to mention the footnotes, highlighting traditional folk-literature motifs that pepper the story.
Indeed, I picked it up with no small degree of trepidation. Not only is formally inventive memoir all the rage, many examples of which suffer from style over substance; but even more damningly, that was precisely my criticism of Machado’s short story debut, Her Body and Other Parties. The centrepiece of the collection recast every episode of the first 12 seasons of the American TV show Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in an eerie world of ghosts and doppelgängers; a conceit that was both monotonous and dull.
Here, however, it’s the exact opposite. The further inside the Dream House I ventured – “You pile up associations the way you pile up bricks. Memory itself is a form of architecture,” Louise Bourgeois reminds us in the first of the book’s three epigraphs – the more convinced I was that there was no better way Machado could have told this story. After all, what’s more genre-bending that a tale of love turned poisonous? That in which the “kick of want between your legs” becomes the “kick of fear between your shoulder blades”.
How else to portray the experience of being in a relationship with someone who swings between charismatic and alluring and volatile and dangerous? This is a woman who hurls abuse at Machado while they’re driving home from a bar, who follows her into the house, into the bathroom, into the shower, screaming all the while. Who rips the shower curtain from its rings, leaving Machado sobbing, vulnerable and naked, backed into a corner. Then who comes back only minutes later and, “in a voice so sweet your heart splits open like a peach,” asks her why she’s crying.
As the book skitters and skids between genres, the reader’s sense of instability mimics Machado’s own unsteadiness, both then as the abused and now as its documenter. “At times,” she admits in the afterword, “it didn’t feel like I was writing at all; it felt like I was pinning down fragments of history with well- aimed throws of a knife before they could shift or melt away.”
That Machado is writing into a broader silence about violence in queer relationships only makes her book more powerful. The last thing queer women need, she thinks, reticent to tell anyone what’s happening, is bad PR. Now happily married to another woman – one who has her own history with the unnamed ex: this is “Dream House as Plot Twist” – if Machado could say anything to her ex, it would be “For f---’s sake, stop making us look bad.” This isn’t flippancy, it’s desperation born from deficiency. We still don’t really know what to do with same-sex relationships that aren’t models of equality.
Perhaps one of the reasons it’s so complicated, Machado suggests, is because, in the same way that abuse in heterosexual relationships is a form of sexism, abuse in queer relationships is a form of homophobia: “I am doing this because I can get away with it; I can get away with it because you exist on some cultural margin, some societal periphery.” Yet to deny queer people their wrongdoings and their villainy is also to deny them their humanity.
In wrestling with this silence, the books morphs, at intervals, into something closer to critical cultural history. Thus, In the Dream House is evidence and archive both – Frankenstein’s monster meets haunted house. Most poignant of all, though, is the realisation that it’s only by telling her story, the only way she knows how, by means of this exceptional document, that Machado realises what happened to her is not unique, and that she is not alone.
In the Dream House is published by Serpent’s Tail at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop