Carmen Maria Machado knows she’s hard to categorize. The West Philly author of 2017’s critically acclaimed Her Body and Other Parties and the brand new In the Dream House is well aware that her writing, while undeniably literary, runs wild through a number of genres — fantasy, horror, fairy tales, police procedurals, and on and on.
“One time I went to an event and these two people came up to me and were like, ‘We both work at the same bookstore and we were fighting over where to put your book,’” says Machado, who lives in West Philly and is a writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania.
When the dust settled, that particular bookstore decided to file Her Body and Other Parties — currently being adapted for television by FX into a “feminist Black Mirror” TV series — under sci-fi and fantasy, which is fine with her. “We’re obsessed with these categories as they relate to a library or a bookstore, but ultimately, any label you could put on my work is accurate to some degree.”
That said, she’s not completely comfortable with the sci-fi tag. “I only have one science fiction story, by the rules of the genre, in Her Body and Other Parties.”
In praise of ‘ambitious weirdness’
That said, Machado edited the 2019 edition of The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and she knows great sci-fi when she reads it. Her introduction celebrates emotional impact and “ambitious weirdness.”
In the Dream House is a memoir, and can comfortably be shelved as such, recounting the story of Machado’s yearslong relationship with a woman given to eruptions of rage and verbal tirades. But you’ve never read a book quite like this, partly because stories of traumatic queer relationships are less often told.
And then there’s the storytelling, which offers a gorgeously kaleidoscopic view of its subject by reframing the “dream house” relationship every page or so. The chapter headings tip us off: “Dream House as Noir,” “Dream House as Natural Disaster,” “Dream House as Murder Mystery.”
“I tried to do it in a more straightforward manner, and I really struggled to make it work. I just wasn't that kind of writer and it just wasn't my strength,” Machado says. “It was clear that I needed something, a container, to hold the stuff. And that was the correct shape for the things I needed to hold.”
Several chapters come with footnotes relating real-life moments to passages in an anthology of folk-literature motifs. Sometimes it’s done to comic effect; sometimes it adds an air of futility to the situation, a feeling that you, the main character, are trapped in a time loop or a cliché.
Upping the intensity: All those oppressive years in the dream house are recounted in the second person, present tense. As in, “You’re not sexy, but she will have sex with you. Sometimes when you look at your phone, she has sent you something stunningly cruel, and there is a kick of fear between your shoulder blades.”
The unorthodox storytelling, she says, was inspired by Justin Torres’s We the Animals, a novel told in the first-person plural perspective of three brothers — until they are driven apart by tragedy, turning the “we” into “I,” “me” and “they.”
Machado sees her own story as fragmented by trauma. “Things are broken apart and the only way to make sense of them is to sort of just assemble them on the floor in front of you, because you can't actually put it back together.”
Intellectually, Machado knows she shouldn’t blame herself for the emotionally abusive relationship the memoir chronicles — it’s advice she has given others many times — but that’s easier said than done.
“I'm about to start touring the book and the thought of reading out my own humiliation in front of all these people is quite terrible. As I was writing the book, I kept thinking I can't believe I decided to do this,” she says.
“I almost let myself be completely unmade," she said. "And there’s something really chilling about that.”
Carmen Maria Machado ‘In the Dream House’
7:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 7, at the Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine St., free, 215-567-4341, freelibrary.org.