In the Dream House and Unsettling
Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House is a devastating memoir about an abusive lesbian relationship.
The structure is strange and lovely. Machado doesn't pick a genre for her story but uses a different one each chapter. Sometimes we get a fairy tale, sometimes a pop single, sometimes the description of a physical structure. The dream house is portrayed as a void and also as sci-fi thriller. The kaleidoscope of form is playful, for sure, but it's also a way to get at what is beyond comprehension.
There's a senselessness to a relationship like this—the cruelty, the mind games, the inability to break free. There is no easy framework for it. The different genres serve as lenses through which to examine the relationship. Surely, one of these will work!
And yet nothing really does. The writer is compelled to reframe her story again and again, as each genre proves not quite enough to make sense of it all. Still, she keeps trying.
This isn't the writer's failure, by the way, but her triumph. It's a way of making the reader understand what cannot be understood. Each form illuminates something about the relationship, even as it fails to explain it as whole. What it illuminates overall is the impossibility of explaining.
This book's strange form doesn't just relate the writer's processes in an intellectual sense but creates sensations in the reader. We feel what it is like to be the person who is trapped in the dream house and also what it's like to be the later version of the same person, the one who has left the place but still struggles to understand it.
The reader is yanked out of each genre abruptly, never allowed to be comfortable. The scale is smaller, of course, but it approximates the perpetual anxiety of the character who is trapped in the abusive relationship, not knowing when her partner will turn cruel or violent.
At the same time, the frustration we feel, as framework after framework stops short of satisfying us, is the torment of a survivor grappling with trauma. We understand the desperate but useless struggle to wrangle a messy and painful experience into a coherent narrative.
I'm also interested in the use of "you" in this work, which is definitely related to the technique of "unsettling" and to the two versions of herself that the memoirist presents.
In the English language, there are several ways to use and understand the word "you" as POV. It can be a direct address to the reader, of course. Or the "you" can be an imagined or fictional listener that the the narrator is speaking to. In this case, the reader is not addressed but merely overhearing. It's also quite common for "you" to be used, informally, as the hypothetical "one." Hypothetical "you" can then slide quite easily to be understood as "I." In fact, in longer passages, "you" nearly always comes to feel like "I," or perhaps another pronoun like "they," or "she," or "he."
My point is that the reader may begin any second-person narrative by wondering if it's a direct address. There's this startle, this "who me?" that can occur in the first sentences. Sometimes it is a direct address. But more often that sense will slip away, and we'll come to see the "you" as either a different character or as just another way of saying "I."
Even when the direct address fades away, I love the sense of conflict it creates in the first moment. The writer cozies all the way into my consciousness. I feel accused of some action (or inaction) that occurs in the story, and then I must either accept or reject responsibility for that. And so the book makes me, much like the character, grapple with things like complicity and blame, even when I don't deserve it. In a book about abuse, this is particularly chilling. (See the "choose your own adventure" chapter, in particular, for an incredible use of this technique.)
Even more exciting, because of the structure of this book and the way each chapter feels like a brand new start, we're made the grapple with the "you" freshly in every chapter in which it appears. Each time, we must startle, feel briefly accused, and then choose to either shake off that feeling or accept it.
It's important to note that not all of the chapters use "you"; some are narrated instead in the first person and use "I." This makes the "you" feel even sharper when it appears. But it also has a significant effect on the way we understand the narrator.
It's always the same dream house. It's always the same person trapped in the same terrifying relationship. But sometimes the character is "I" and sometimes it's "you." This technique effectively splits one person into separate entities so that the two versions can play against each other. We understand a stark contrast between the older self and younger self, between the "I" who has emerged from the dream house and the "you" who was stuck within it. In this way, we understand how difficult it is for the present self to fully understand the past self.
It's another way the writer brings us into this puzzle that can't quite be solved. "You" is the same person as "I," but it is also other and unknowable.
It's often noted that "you" is a powerful POV for writing about trauma. I think this is because of the mix of intimacy and distance it creates. It's a person speaking to a past self, or perhaps a present self. It's a person separating from a self. At the same time, it's a narrator cramming all the way into the consciousness, all the way into the self of the reader, and then slipping deftly back out. And it's the reader accepting or fighting off that violation.
In the final paragraph of the book, Machado brings the "I" and the "you" together but only in a subjunctive space: "I wished I had always lived in this body, and you could have lived here with me, and I could have told you it’s all right, it’s going to be all right.”
It's through a series of unsettling parallel constructions—multiple genres describing the same thing, opposite pronouns for the same person—that we can hold in our brains a paradox. It's a way of making readers sense a strangeness, even if we can't make sense of it.
You shouldn't unsettle the reader willy-nilly—that's just mean. But some purposeful unsettling, like that of In the Dream House, can enrich the reading experience in a profound way.