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Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado's debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle's John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of "The New Vanguard," one of "15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century."

Blurbs

“Machado rejects standard memoir conventions in favor of short discursive chapters. . . . The result is a thoroughly engrossing, sometimes enraging must-read.”

– BuzzFeed

“Celebrated for her inventive writing, Carmen Maria Machado will not disappoint her fans with this dazzling memoir that journeys through a maze of stories, each vignette (some only a sentence long) an individual room containing a moment of wonder, curiosity or sorrow.”

– NBC News Latino

“Machado is able to captivate the reader while telling a brutally honest narrative of abuse.”

– Marie Claire

“Forget everything you think you know about memoir when reading Carmen Maria Machado's brilliant, twisting, provocative entry in the genre."

– NYLON

“The Philly author of the much-awarded Her Body and Other Parties comes back strong with this memoir about adolescence, sexual identity, and damaging love.”

– The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Daringly structured and ruthlessly inquisitive. . . . The heart of this history is clear, deeply felt, and powerful. A fiercely honest, imaginatively written, and necessary memoir from one our great young writers.”

– Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Machado has written an affecting, chilling memoir about domestic abuse.”

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

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Featured Book

In the Dream House: A Memoir

Feeling Haunted: A Review of In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

09/29/19

When I was a girl I used to read with a kind of anxious-joyful intensity that bodily took me over. I would wedge myself into the space between my creaking bedframe and the wall of my bedroom, and the sunbeams would slant overhead, and the dust would get in my nose, and I would get lost for whole weekends—maybe even weeks if it was the summer. The physical sensations were specific: too-rapid heart beats, short and shallow breaths, a wildness rising in my throat, a wide and unconscious smile, a shivery feeling in my spine, eyes moving rapidly and without blinking until I’d realized periodically that they hurt like a sonofabitch. That specific mania-joy-wonder doesn’t happen for me as often now; I’ve read enough books, and lived long enough, and narrowed my palate. When it does, though, I feel twelve again, and I am once again in my childhood bedroom. I smell the particular smell of the dust and the warm sunbeams and the detergent-rich sheets on my bed.

In Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir In the Dream House, she explores what it means for a space to be haunted—“It means that metaphors abound; that space exists in four dimensions; that if you return somewhere often enough it becomes infused with your energy; that the past never leaves us; that there’s always atmosphere to consider; that you can wound air as cleanly as you can wound flesh.” This is undeniably true. But I think that haunting can work in the reverse too. A feeling can be infused with a specific space, a specific time, and a specific body.

The book haunted me in this way. It haunted me by being unspeakably beautiful and new and clench-my-jaw-hands-are-shaking brilliant. It made me twelve-and-thirty at once; it overlaid my no longer really there Midwestern childhood bedroom over my New York kitchen; it possessed me with all those old familiar drugged-up sensations. I sat rigidly still for hours in the same attitude without even noticing that this is not something which is particularly bearable for me anymore. I ignored fourteen phone calls; four were from my mother. I cancelled one set of plans and declined another. I skipped several meals. And all because I had to—absolutely had to—finish this book, which I did within twenty-four hours of getting my hands on the ARC. And then I flipped back to the front and started again.

It also haunted me with past versions of myself—the “You”s I contain as the book itself takes on a convention of a “You” and an “I” to differentiate the narrator’s self in the timeline of the story. (“You were not always just a You. I was whole—a symbiotic relationship between my best and worst parts—and then, in one sense of the definition, I was cleaved; a neat loop that took first person—that assured, confident woman, the girl detective, the adventurer—away from second, who was always anxious and vibrating like a too-small breed of dog.” From that cleaving, I left and lived on the east coast, lived the most triumphant notes of her life that we think of associated with an artist like Carmen. You’s biographical points are the points which live in her time in Iowa and Indiana, and in the dark of that relationship. I thought you died, but writing this, I’m not sure you did.”) This haunting arises from a number of key biographical parallels which were joy-light-tear-bringing to read, since they are lived experiences I do not often (ever) get to see made vivid on the page. I am suddenly remembering the dedication of the book—"If you need this book, it is for you.”—and at the risk of sounding like an unconscionable egoist, it feels like it is for me, at least when I am alone, in my room, at my desk.

And it is.

And it is not.

This book is, yes, for you (me) if you are someone who can relate to any portion of the experiences or identities outlined and may want to feel a tin bit less alone and more seen.

It is also, explicitly, for The Archive. For a “you” that is collective and historical in context. Which is part of Carmen Maria Machado’s incredible mastery of craft; she can write something at once erudite, personal, and formally complex and experimental, and generous, and contrary, and natural, and meta, and snappy. It’s deft and as weightless as air. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a creative work which has so explicitly engaged with an awareness of the reader, the act of reader, the mind of the reader parsing the text, the idea of text, and the act of writing, while still remaining warm and engaging and funny.

But what can you expect when you pick up the book? (And you should, whoever you are.) Something that feels new. On one hand, Carmen weaves a personal narrative which progresses more or less chronologically through an abusive relationship with a woman she met and dated mostly during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. These are presented in a series of what amount to medium-length personal essays, and the language and insight in them is beautiful and touching and clear-eyed. But if this is the more traditional base, the book as a whole is far from traditional, because that more traditional memoir fodder is only one strand which Carmen deftly braids with personal essays dealing with other periods of her life—as the information may become relevant—academic and cultural essays on topics ranging from Louise Bourgeois, the Gaslight films, Saidiya Hartman’s “violence of the archive,” queer history, Gothicism, Doctor Who, folktales, features of abusive relationships, A Star is Born, the concept of hauntings, and more and more. Each essay is playful and smart and different from those around it, starting with “Dream House as…” and taking on variously the form and genre conventions of a bildungsroman, a choose your own adventure, a libretto, a murder mystery, and so on, and so on.

In the Dream House is also, before you get too far into this review thinking that the book is going to be some kind of alternatively maudlin and hyper-intellectually dry tome, very much playful and funny. In the very first section, or essay, or whatever I am meant to call it, “Dream House as Overture,” she begins the whole book with “I never read prologues.” The very next section, when you turn the page, is “Dream House as Prologue.” This tongue-in-cheek, double-back-upon-itself dance permeates the whole work. So too does a sense of interrogating the purpose and use and limitations of the work itself (“the memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection”), but also the strength and power and necessity of it—of memoir and memory. While she explicitly acknowledges that hers are just one person’s—with just one person’s constellation of identities—lived experiences, Carmen addresses early on, and then again and again throughout the book the problem of the archive: of history, and queer history, and the lack of literature and documentation and study of abuse in relationships between people with the same gender identities. History is incomplete, and that has individual and communal implications. So, with her memoir, she “enters into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon, and that it can look something like this.”

The truth is I’m a little bit in goofy-sappy love with this book, just like I was a little bit in goofy-sappy love Carmen’s debut collection of short stories Her Body and Other Parties, when my good friend Patrick (who reviewed it for this very site) pressed the book into my hands and said ‘no really, you need to read this, YOU especially need to read this.’ And so when I saw that the ARCs were coming in for her second book I leapt at the chance to “dibs” reviewing it (umm, sorry Patrick). So now I arrive at the third way I am feeling a little haunted while writing this review, which is with a tinge of embarrassment. Both the reflexive embarrassment I always when I have a crush (and, yes, I get crushes on books), and also with the lightly mortifying memory—persistently lingering in my consciousness as I write this—of the time that I met Carmen (briefly) at a reading she did with NYU at the KGB bar. When I fainted right there in front of her. (It was hot and overcrowded, I had low blood pressure, let’s just… leave it.) I can assure everyone that she could not have been kinder, or more concerned and gracious. She offered me a granola bar and I was a little out of it, but I remember getting really weird about how I couldn’t possibly, not her granola bars, oh my gosh. I did however take the opportunity to introduce myself and dizzily say “hi, I’m a big fan.” She talked to me for a while to put me at ease, and drew smelling salts in my copy of her book when I asked her to sign it, and very kindly did not make fun of me even a little despite how weird I was being.

So, if none of the praises I’ve heaped on In the Dream House have swayed you thus far, here’s one last salvo: it is a good thing in this world and in our community to support and lift up the lovely ones, by which I mean the writers and artists are brilliant and funny, and still warm and kind and human. And Carmen Maria Machado seems, really seems, like a good one.

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