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Memoir as Surrealism

As you know, I tend to lean towards the surreal in my reading tastes. Often, more on the literary side of surreal, but anything that blows up and shrinks aspects of life until they swirl into sense. Something I can float on. Something that envelopes me.

So, I didn’t expect to love a memoir, especially not a memoir about domestic violence in a queer relationship. But I couldn’t resist giving In the Dreamhouse by Carmen Maria Machado a try. After all, the title and cover seemed to hint at surrealism.

I wasn’t disappointed. On the contrary, I was surprised at how thoroughly this memoir drew me in.

Memoir as Tone

I love Carmen’s tone throughout the book. I think it helps that I listened to the audio version, which is read by Carmen herself. This really brought the authentic tone alive. Often I don’t care if a book is read by its author or a professional narrator, but with memoirs, the tone is so important that I prefer the author to narrate.

In this case, her speech patterns reminded me of a good friend from California who also happens to be queer. The intonation was so similar that I could, at times, imagine them reading to me. This really allowed me to sink into the story.

But in writing, tone goes way beyond speech patterns. In the Dreamhouse had that thick tone that I adore in writing, where it dips into moments so thoroughly that the reader is smothered in them. I’m not talking about over-description, which is apparently what most people think of when I describe writing as thick. Rather, I mean that it’s in such a deep POV that I could really see myself there with the author, experiencing the same things as them. When she turns her head, it’s not a surprise, because I wanted to turn my head. That’s the thickness of tone I’m talking about. The type of writing you can just roll around in and trust that nothing is going to jolt you. No sharp edges. Just a blanket of experience.

Memoir as Approach

A well-told memoir uses narrative to turn a linear experience into something more. This can be done in several different ways, but most memoirs are too straightforward for me. Carmen approached memoir by writing each chapter in a different style or genre. Perhaps the most talked about chapter is Dreamhouse as Choose Your Own Adventure in which she leads readers through a sort of kobayashi maru of abuse. This chapter perfectly shows how abuse can erode a person’s will until they accept the abuse as inevitable — that no matter what they do, it keeps happening, and their choice is only how to make it less, not prevent it.

However, if the whole book was written as a choose your own adventure, it could become tiresome. Because, no one wants to live through those choices over and over again. Instead, each chapter takes on a different treatment. My favorite is probably Dreamhouse as Deja Vu, which shows up several times throughout the book. It’s the same scene — her receiving a text from her partner — over and over again. What starts as something sweet becomes something jealous, then possessive, then abusive. The chapter is maybe two-hundred words long, but its repetition makes it extremely powerful.

Part of why I consider this book surrealist is the treatment. While some chapters dip into fantasy or surrealism, it is the dissection of a life into these treatments that explodes the story into something bigger than it is.

Memoir as Part of Something Bigger

I keep mentioning that the treatment made a very personal story feel like part of something bigger. Carmen blasts beyond the “feeling” of connection and actually connects her individual tale into the larger issue of queer IPV. The opening of the book reads almost like an academic paper on domestic violence, slowly expanding to a more creative approach until the creativity turns the global issue into something personal. It slowly sinks into an almost surreal state, but keeps coming back to this general theme of IPV in the queer community, like fish nibbling away at a callous.

Throughout the book, there are well-researched snippets of history showcasing the lack of understanding about domestic abuse among lesbians. This, juxtaposed against Carmen not recognizing her own abuse, shows the urgency of the topic and why it is important to consider and understand. In the end, the book is a plea for community recognition of domestic abuse in the queer community. She showcases the problems of recognizing it: that women are often not seen as abusers and that the queer community needs to present itself as perfect. Then, through a deeply honest and raw account of her own experience, she makes the ready recognize the complications of the subject.

This was the first book I read from Carmen Maria Machado, and honestly I picked it because Her Body and Other Parties was not available from my library. But I am glad I found my way to it, and I highly recommend it.

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