Years ago, when I was still waiting for someone to tell me what it meant to be a writer, I read a panel discussion in Poets & Writers with a group of agents who said you only get one dream per book because dreams are too easy a way to spell out what a character is feeling. The Brick House by Micheline Aharonian Marcom showed me what was really too easy was that quote. By dedicating an entire book to that most revealing condition, she’s shown how complex our dreams, and our lives, really are. My mentor in grad school, I’ve learned a lot from Micheline about how to find my own way as a writer and reading this book showed me not only how far I’ve come but how much farther, still, I can go.
The Brick House, Real and Imagined
There is a magical place I go to fill up, to find myself when I’ve strayed too far from who I want to be. It is the place I was conceived and the place I learned to accept and celebrate myself as a writer. This place sometimes calls me so hard I consider dropping everything and rushing there to teach (or just to be). Now Micheline has written a book set in this place, and when I touched the book, when I read it all late the night it came in the mail, I was nearly home again. Though The Brick House is strange and unsettling, this beautiful book helped return me to me.
The brick house I know is at the end of a lane on officer’s row. A strange building known for the visions and nightmares it imparts to women. A house I once missed exploring because I did not have the courage to enter the front door, let alone climb aside the staircase to pass the barrier that hides what is in the attic. The house was so renowned for its haunted nights, that my school eventually stopped housing women there altogether. But not before Micheline got to sleep there.
The Brick House Marcom imagines is an isolated place beside the sea where those in need come for one night to dream the portentous dreams they need to change their lives. Not a well-known or fancy retreat center, but rather the kind of place that strangers seek you out in your worst moments to whisper an invitation. We meet first the house and then a traveler who was invited here to dream.
As in Marcom’s other two more recent books, this traveler, the mysterious caretaker and the place itself are not named. This anonymity opens the book to a reader’s own willingness to add the final details that make the book our own. For me, the eponymous brick house could not be separated from the one in my memory, but I enjoy imagining the myriad brick houses other readers will bring to this book. I wonder now if the not-naming comes from Marcom’s multicultural background, if it was a realization that once an author adds a name like Peter or Issa to a character, a reader layers on assumptions. Instead, Marcom pulls back and allows us to enter and assign the cues that pull us deeper into the book than any prescribed identifiers could.
The traveler finds the brick house unnerving, from the jumble of room numbers to the art on the walls everything makes him feel “as if he might lose himself inside of this building, as if he will not return or resume after he crosses the threshold to the room because the man that he is (that he thinks he is) might come apart or will not hold inside its walls”.
Pushing My Writing, Still
Writing into the Heat
One of the things Micheline taught me that I always return to in times of fitfulness and bad writing is to write into the heat. That means both to write into what feels worthy at the moment but also to continue exploring your long-term obsessions. I’m good at remembering to write about what’s burning at the moment, but I’ve been neglecting my long-term obsessions. The Brick House reminded me that the magic of the words we put together on the page is that personal brew of ideas and triggers and explorations that are unique to each of us. The words are full of life if we write into our excitements (negative and positive) and the words build into an opus if we follow our obsessions.
Marcom’s obsessions include labyrinths and love affairs, houses invaded and the toxicity of capitalism. By reading how her obsessions have evolved and endured in this new work, I saw that the tiny chunks of projects I’ve been breaking off for myself are selling short the greater ideas I’m grappling with. Marcom helped me see that my explorations of what it means to see oneself as and be seen as a woman are related to my “mommy poetry” which is related to my struggle with algorithms as actors in shaping who we are, how we are seen, and how we see others. In the days since reading this book, I’ve already had one breakthrough in my writing (and, more importantly, my thinking) that could not have happened without bringing all of myself to the page at once.
Speaking of bringing all of yourself to the page, The Brick House is the first work in which I’ve ever seen Marcom explore genre and it’s wonderful to behold. One of the things I liked most about our grad program was the agnostic approach to genre, but there were not many advisors who wrote in genres themselves. Perhaps it’s because of the freeing aspect of writing about dreams, but The Brick House contains some exquisite examples of horror, sci-fi, folklore, and erotica.
Rethinking the Cadence of Language
One of the tricks I’ve cribbed from Marcom along the way is the pushing together of words that we generally see separated. It’s something she explores still in The Brick House, pairing it with a repetition that turns the words into music with lines like:
“Paying notpaying paying the bills and collectors and more bills”
The touch here is subtle enough not to distract from our understanding of the sentence, but the effect of removing the commas, smashing the words together, and repeating “paying” with only slight alteration throws us deep into the gnawing rhythm of everyday life that this character is either trying to escape from or drown himself in.
“The strangest dream was the one you dreamed before you arrived: of lonely, unnatural men.”
I dreamed last night that a friend won a major literary award. While I got to spend time with her before the event, I spent the duration of her reading worrying that I should not have brought my toddler. This quotidian dream is not worthy of the brick house. But it is relatively revealing about my current fears as I prepare for the privilege of flying down to San Francisco for the release of The Brick House, leaving my family at home for a night to embrace the writer life. Despite the incredible generosity and support of my husband, this time to be just me feels like an emotional extravagance. Although I’m thinking more and more a necessary one, because life is short and it’s very easy to get caught up in “paying notpaying paying the bills” and forget the person I could be.
With two books under my belt since I first visited the isolated peninsula where I began and began again, I do know now what it means to be a writer, but sometimes it helps to have a reminder. The Brick House was that reminder for me, in more than one way, and now that I know who built that house, I’ll return to it again and again.
To dream your own most important dreams, pick up a copy of The Brick House from Powell’s Books. Your purchase keeps indie booksellers in business and I receive a commission.