Machine Dreams (Magill's Literary Annual 1985)
Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams follows her highly successful and critically acclaimed collection of short stories Black Tickets (1979). The novel, for all its occasional beauty, seems to be an example of a major talent gone wrong in satisfaction of what the late Katherine Anne Porter called “a perfectly artificial demandto do the conventional thing”—produce a novel. Porter expressed her warning of the “trap lying just ahead” of “every short story writer of any gifts at all” in her 1941 introduction to Eudora Welty’s first collection of stories, A Curtain of Green (1941). From great success in the short story, which Porter recognized as “a special and difficult medium,” Jayne Anne Phillips has done the “conventional thing,” and the resulting novel is an essentially conventional achievement. Machine Dreams is neither remarkable for its story nor memorable for its characters. Such a seemingly important figure as Dr. Reb, for example, a friend of all the principal characters, never assumes real importance, though Phillips inexplicably reveals much about his early love life and hints even more about his unsatisfactory marriage. Other characters, the sickly Katie, for example, take on real importance early in the book and then drop out of sight until much later, when they reappear in altered circumstances as almost incidental characters.
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Perhaps because Phillips's original genre was the short story, her novels usually consist of numerous separate and vivid episodes, told from various points of view. In Machine Dreams, Danner narrates six sections, Mitch and Billy four each, and Jean three. The overall effect is a mosaic which conveys events accurately and allows the reader to understand the attitudes and motives of all the major characters.
Phillips also suggests that the lives of her characters are essentially a microcosm for events in the larger society. Thus, she carefully sets the Hampsons' personal conflict against the backdrop of national conflict surrounding the Vietnam war.
Another hallmark of Phillips's style is its poetic quality, especially the lyrical quality of her prose and her vivid description of significant events and scenes. When Danner and Billy pry up the floorboards in their house to see its foundation, clearly their action is symbolic as well as believable behavior for young children. Equally striking are symbolic images such as Mitch's bulldozer, the cement trucks, Danner's dream horses, Billy's plane, and later his helicopter.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Phillips repeatedly portrays the individual caught in the crisis of a disintegrating family. Frequently, the failure of the family structure parallels more general failure in the society as a whole. In Machine Dreams, for example, the conflict among the Hampsons represents the conflicts in American society. Mitch, the World War II veteran, cannot understand his daughter's opposition to the Vietnam war of his son's almost fatalistic indifference to being drafted. Like many mothers, Jean urges her son to remain in college, not to gain an education but to retain his deferment. Discussion groups might analyze the contrast between Mitch's service in World War II and Billy's tour in Vietnam. Phillips raises the issue of the country's attitude toward returning Vietnam veterans and later toward MIAs.
As family bonds are loosened, Phillips's characters frequently find themselves adrift without meaningful social or personal values. The result is personal isolation seen most clearly among the Vietnam veterans, and also in Danner's relationship to her father and to the legal system. Discussion might consider the causes and effects of these changes in traditional national, family, and personal values. Another relevant topic is Phillips's overall tone of frustration and uncertainty.
More than most of Phillips's fiction, Machine Dreams attempts to be a family saga encompassing several generations. Discussion might examine the repetitive...
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While Machine Dreams certainly could not be considered a war novel in the usual sense, World War II and the Vietnam war frame this novel as the actual wars marked the boundaries of an era in American life. Just as World War II was the defining event of Mitch Hampson's generation, so Vietnam was for his son's. As Phillips clearly demonstrates, however, these two wars were vastly different. Mitch, who sees the distinctions only belatedly, expresses the attitude that military service is Billy's patriotic duty. Danner, Mitch's daughter, does not consider the war justified; her attitude is that of the draft resisters. On the other hand, Billy, like many of the war's combatants, believes any discussion of the war is futile; Vietnam is simply his fate. By allowing each point of view to be presented by the character in his or her narrative, Phillips defines the issue and presents all the attitudes more or less objectively.
The Vietnam war is the largest issue Billy faces, but for Danner the corresponding issue is marijuana use. Again the generational discrepancy is clearly portrayed. In the World War II generation of Reb, Mitch, and Clayton, the drug of choice is alcohol. Mitch may warn Reb against letting Clayton drink too much, but consumption of alcohol is not illegal. Thus, Mitch becomes very angry with Danner when she is arrested for possessing a small amount of marijuana, and he is even more upset that neither Danner nor Billy seems to take her crime...
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Phillips's multiple narrators link her to William Faulkner, and her lyrical prose resembles that of both Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. The almost epic scope of the Hampson family saga is also reminiscent of Wolfe, who likewise portrays children trapped in their parents' conflict. The dissolution of the family is a recurring theme in modern fiction, especially in the novels of Anne Tyler and Gail Godwin. The Vietnam war's effect upon the soldiers' families is dealt with in Bobbie Ann Mason's novel, In Country (1985).
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Machine Dreams develops the themes introduced in Black Tickets (1979) and reenforced in Fast Lanes (1987) and Shelter (1994): the disintegration of the family, the isolation of the individual, and the contemplative person's search for values and identity. As in Shelter, individual conflicts are seen in counterpoint with national conflicts. Other similarities include the poetic quality of Phillips's prose and her use of a variety of narrators and narrative techniques: the monologue, the reminiscence, and the retrospective recounting of events.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Boston Review. IX, August, 1984, p. 27.
Kirkus Reviews. LII, May 1, 1984, p. 424.
Library Journal. CIX, July, 1984, p. 1348.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner. June 17, 1984, p. F6.
Los Angeles Times. July 9, 1984, V, p. 1.
Ms. XII, June, 1984, p. 33.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 1, 1984, p. 3.
The New Yorker. LX, July 30, 1984, p. 87.
Newsweek. CIV, July 16, 1984, p. 78.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, April 27, 1984, p. 73.
Time. CXXIV, July 16, 1984, p. 69.
Working Woman. IX, October, 1984, p. 174.
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