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.
Phillips has divided Machine Dreams into seventeen sections varying in length from better than thirty pages to a single page. A few sections are written in the first person, and all focus upon the experience of an individual character. The table of contents identifies the focus of each section. The book achieves apparent structural unity through recurrence of titles and content. Two chapters, for example, focus on Jean and are titled “Reminiscence to a Daughter: Jean.” Section 3 provides the letters Mitch wrote during World War II (1942-1945), and section 15 provides his son Billy’s war letters (1970). Two chapters are entitled “Machine Dreams,” and one “Machine Dream,” and each focuses on a different character: Mitch (1946), his son, Billy (1957), and his daughter, Danner, in the book’s final, undated, page-long section.
Jean’s “Reminiscence to a Daughter,” with which the book opens, and Mitch’s first-person narrative “The Secret Country: Mitch,” both undated, provide the retrospective structure to be filled in by subsequent chapters, for both sections are written in knowledge of what is to follow. “Reminiscence to a Daughter: Jean, 1962” looks more narrowly at the events leading to Jean’s decision to divorce Mitch.
Repetition of section titles, of war letters, and of characters’ individual machine dreams suggests recurrence of basic experience despite the external differences between the 1940’s and the 1970’s. Jean, the daughter of an older man married to a younger wife, attaches herself increasingly closely to her mother, particularly when her father, a failure in business, takes to alcohol and becomes a physical threat to her mother. Later, when her mother lies dying of cancer, Jean also marries an older man, and the cycle repeats itself. The initially gentle Mitch is obliged to sell his concrete business and become a salesman, while Jean, who has earned her college degree, provides more of the family’s support than he and eventually divorces him before his pent-up anger turns against her.
The first nine sections of Machine Dreams suggest that Jean is to be the book’s central consciousness, for her voice is heard in two first-person reminiscences to a daughter, and a third section (written in the third person) focuses on her (“Anniversary Song: Jean, 1948”). The focus of the remaining eight chapters, however, clearly shifts to Jean and Mitch’s daughter, Danner, though her brother, Billy, is also prominent: His death in Vietnam, or rather its effect on his family, climaxes the book. The last eight chapters are divided between Billy (three chapters) and Danner (five chapters). The shift to Danner’s perspective fulfills Jean’s final statement in the opening chapter, where she writes, “Still, you and I will go on.” In recalling the difficulties of Danner’s birth, Jean writes that at first she thought she had a boy, for “no girl would cause such trouble.” She concludes the section with her thankfulness that she had a daughter—“like my own mother had come back to me.”
Machine Dreams, like many another novel, chronicles a family and suggests that each generation somehow perpetuates the legacy which it receives from the previous generation. Mitch, abandoned by his mother and rejected by his father, is unflaggingly loyal to his aunt Bess and her husband, the almost-alcoholic Clayton. Mitch lavishes on Bess and Clayton’s sickly daughter the affection he can never give his own children. After Clayton’s death, resulting from a stroke witnessed by Billy, Mitch must sell the concrete business he and Clayton had run. Loss of his own business begins Mitch’s decline. Jean, who shared with her mother the shame of her father’s deterioration and fear of his violence, marries Mitch during her mother’s final illness. She nurses her grief for her mother, and, increasingly, she sees her father’s failings in her husband. Nevertheless, she waits until she is able to support her almost-grown children before breaking away from Mitch and his incipient violence.
Jean and Mitch’s children grow up in a tense household, but Danner responds to her parents’ conflict more intensely than does Billy. From the start, Billy is fascinated by machines—his father’s concrete trucks, airplanes, and trains. Phillips suggests that machines dominate the male’s life in twentieth century America, for Billy, faced with the likelihood of military service in the...
(The entire section is 2410 words.)