Carmen Maria Machado’s Lesbian Fairy Tale Fights for Complex Queer Characters

In the Dream House grapples with the ‘bad PR’ of an abusive queer relationship

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House, 2019, book cover. Courtesy: Graywolf Press

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House, 2019, book cover. Courtesy: Graywolf Press

In Stuart Hall’s New Ethnicities (1996) he discerns a shift from the ‘relations of representation’ to the ‘politics of representation’, writing that, ‘films are not necessarily good because black people make them. They are not necessarily ‘right on’ by virtue of the fact that they deal with the black experience’. This is what Hall calls the end of the ‘innocent notion of the essential black subject’, advocating for a politics that ‘works with and through difference’.

Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House (Graywolf, 2019) approaches ‘female queerness’ with a similar attentiveness to the easy, essentialist readability of queer lives; it is perilously cautious of potentially distracting and surface-level representation. Machado’s memoir is many things at once – index, testimony, a memoir of a toxic, abusive relationship, a multiple-choice game, a lesbian fairy tale, a taxonomy and a history of queer domestic violence. In many ways, by the end, it is another, infinitely sweeter, more hopeful, fairy tale too. It is a book about how, when you inhabit a ‘curvy-to-fat’ queer ­body, it is embarrassing to think that someone might desire you, might love you, and how easy it becomes to succumb to sweetness when you have, for so long, thought that you deserved nothing of the sort.

It is also a memoir about optics, about not wanting queerness to look bad in public. In the Dream House is dogged by a nagging alertness to the pitfalls of what queer visibility can do (and what it has done), and therefore what it must always strive to do when people are looking. In ‘Dream House as Queer Villainy’ (more or less each chapter begins ‘Dream House as’ – for instance, ‘Dream House as Dreamboat’, ‘Dream House as Bluebeard’, ‘Dream House as Natural Disaster’) Machado writes, queer villains ‘don’t have to be metaphors for wickedness and depravity or icons of conformity or docility’; Machado pleads for more complex, ambivalently moral characters, where ‘wrongdoing [is] represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing, we refuse their humanity’. In doing so, Machado points us towards the stories that get silenced by the potentially violent erasure inherent to cogent and readable queer visibility, in whatever form that takes.

Machado here is talking about ‘representation’ – TV, films, cultural objects, and literature, but in many ways, she is talking about ‘real-life queers’ too, and the often-uncomfortable slippage between the two. By discussing queer domestic abuse, Machado grapples with the act of bringing this subject to the table and the ‘bad PR’ she might tar queer life with. At one point, Machado writes about being haunted by the ‘lunatic lesbian’, and how she didn’t want ‘The Woman in the Dream House’ to behave with such ‘unflagging irrationality’. She writes, ‘years later, if I could say anything to her, I’d say, “For fuck’s sake, stop making us look bad”.’ As with queer representation, Machado is conscious that ‘queer does not equal good or pure or right.’ That is, when you consider a minoritarian group like the queer community, especially as intersected with race, class, religion, or gender, and the various struggles and violences they have strived to overcome socially, it is hard to admit that these people can also do bad things.

Carmen Maria Machado, 2019, photograph. Courtesy: Art Streiber / AUGUST

Carmen Maria Machado, 2019, photograph. Courtesy: Art Streiber / AUGUST

But if we are to truly render these stories visible, in all their potentially ambivalent difficulty and multiplicity, it is, to quote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as Machado herself does, about undoing the notion of a ‘single story’ that is given as the only legible narrative. In any memoir, but particularly one that is often untold, cracking open a life is difficult. At one point, Machado asks ‘why was the only girlfriend you took to Wisconsin the one who’d reinforce all your conservative relatives’ perceptions of queer women?’ She tells the reader – ‘she was not a dark and brooding man’. What do we renounce then when we have to read as good, normative, queer subjects? One answer is that we create the notion of an essential, good, fixed, queer subject – one that is unable to harm and to hurt. But what Machado suggests is that queers can behave badly too.

Machado in her book consistently tries to account for the vast chasm between the fantasy of a queer life, the reality of the one she once lived, and how this might play out in the reality of the normative, heterosexual imagination – what it might be to give it up to other people. And the reason this is so painful is because it punctures the fantasy, which as Machado writes, is the ‘defining cliché of female queerness.’ To acknowledge queer domestic abuse, as In the Dream House does, is to fully acknowledge that ‘we’re the same as straight folks in this regard: we’re in the muck like everyone else.’ Machado is hopeful, however; ‘maybe this will change someday. Maybe, when queerness is so normal and accepted that finding it will feel less like entering paradise and more like the claiming of your own body: imperfect, but yours’.

The abuse too is slippery in In The Dream House; at one point The Woman in the Dream House holds Machado’s jaw too tightly during sex­ – ‘look at me when I fuck you’. Machado pretends to come. It begins, like many fairy tales, as a love story – ‘she is that mix of butch and femme that drives you crazy’ – and desire gathers in Machado’s limbs, but limbs, eventually, are also gripped tightly, touched without love. There is then the increasing paranoia and control, accusing Machado of fucking people at the grocery store, even The Woman in the Dream House’s father, kicking doors and screaming in her face, chasing her around the house. I read In The Dream House in a hurry, voraciously, at the pub, speeding across the lines of Machado’s prose, and then I hid it from myself, stored it away, scared of its power. Perhaps I felt like it might vanish into thin air, that what it contained might not be real. In the Dream House is drenched in its own sense of speculative questioning, self-disbelief, as if someone might come along at any point, and rip the pages out, tell it that it isn’t telling the truth. Towards the end, as the reader is asked to answer questions in a series of multiple-choice questions, Machado plays upon this narrative gaslighting, desperately trying to render her story as evidence, as testimony, against all odds.

The privacy of domestic space has always been a contested site for queers, as has the archive, and Machado deals with both of these spaces in detail. Much of what Machado explores can’t be contained by and has often been silenced by, the archive – violence, fear, abuse, feeling. As Machado writes in the prologue, ‘sometimes the proof is never committed to the archive – it is not considered important enough to record’. In this sense, In the Dream House is a story from the rubble, fragmentary, one that is hard to tell, where violence forms the inside and the outside. The book is punctured by moments of homophobia, where queer bodies rub up against the hurling abuse of drunk men on the street, or suspicious glances in particular spaces, but violence is also at home, in the house, in the intimate domestic scenes of queer, everyday life. Perhaps then, In the Dream House is proof, a nod towards justice, however nebulous or impossible that idea might be, as it sounds out against gatekeepers, archival erasures, and silence, articulating the possibility of queerness against the grain of singularity.

Bryony White is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, where she is writing about performance and the law. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, and she has written for frieze, LA Review of Books, Artmonthly and the TLS. She co-edits the Tinyletter, close.

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