A review of Machine Dreams, by Jayne Anne Phillips
By the usual standards, Jayne Anne Phillips’s first novel, Machine Dreams, has scored a critical success. But compared with the raves that greeted her previous collection of short stories, Black Tickets, the response to Machine Dreams has been unenthusiastic. The short stories stunned readers; the novel quietly engages. Perhaps critics were disappointed that Phillips left the grotesque underworld inhabited by most of the Black Tickets characters to portray in her novel a more ordinary American family. Yet the skills she honed in the earlier work surely helped her to shape the more deeply convincing characters of Machine Dreams.
Many of Phillips’s short stories offered the common reader strange new experience, a view of lives he would not before have encountered in other authors’ pages: a fourteen-year-old prostitute, proud of her sophistication, describing how she initiates boys to sex; a jailed dope dealer recounting his violent passion for the woman who may have betrayed him. Phillips gave voices to such people, usually writing her stories in first-person. The voices were nervy, quick, well-schooled in slang, yet poetic. Phillips was testing her power to enter an alien mind, locate its primary compulsions, and reproduce these in real and moving speech. Young authors need such exercises, but few undertake them with Phillips’s daring, or pull them off with her success. One sees both her courage and her skill in a story like “Snow,” which, to speak in the voices of a child going blind and his blind parents, must eschew easy visual imagery.
Because Phillips succeeded so well, critics perhaps attributed to her stories more meaning than they can honestly bear. For example, on the dust jacket of the book Raymond Carver hails Black Tickets as news from “America’s disenfranchised-men and women light-years away from the American dream.” Certainly these tales of criminality, perversion, and obsessive desire disturb us, but not because they indict American society. We can’t be sure that the stories accuse anyone, because the stories do not explain the characters’ sufferings. They do not even name what the characters endure as suffering. The stories simply describe. They do not show the characters seeking escapes from their situations, or indeed deliberating any action. They depict persons who seem to live merely through a succession of sensations. So powerful an imagery conveys these sensations that it is a while before one doubts that the stories bear any relation to actual lived experience. One begins to feel the limitation of Phillips’s method in the collection’s last story, “Gemcrack.” In it a mass murderer recounts how he grew from an unnoticed, watchful child into an anonymous killer. He communes with an incorporeal “Uncle” and reverences the flash of light he thinks he sees as his bullets hit target. Here one feels Phillips simply invents metaphors for a way of thinking that is ultimately irrational, inexplicable, and unknowable.
We do best to view the stories as exercises in static, lyric characterization; it is in her novel that Phillips finds a theme large enough for characters who reflect, deliberate, and actively engage the forces that change their lives. The stories do not explain recent American experience, yet the novel attempts to do so. For it is only as human character grapples with what it would control that meaning arises; only then can one reason about causes and effects.
The novel’s plot seems to arise out of several less remarked stories in Black Tickets, stories such as “Home,” “The Heavenly Beast,” and “Souvenir” which describe a daughter’s troubled attempts to communicate with her divorced parents. The stories hint at the conflicts that broke up the marriage, suggesting that these conflicts subtly reduplicate themselves in the daughter’s relationship with men. But the connection between the two problems remains unclear. Rather, a reader carries away from the stories a sense of each mortal being’s terrible isolation, an isolation the American family no longer alleviates. The novel attempts a more complete account of how and why the family has failed.
Machine Dreams tells the history of a family that cannot stay together. A husband and wife, themselves children of unhappy marriages, split in divorce; a son is lost to war. In the fracturing of this private community, the novel invites us to read the more general pattern of American life. It invites this reference in part through its scope-the simply told stories of the family members chronicle life in a small rural town from 1910 to the late 1960s. But it compels thought about the divisions in the American community by connecting the family’s experience to two wars: the Second World War, which we think of as a crisis that pulled our nation together, and the Vietnam War, which split it apart. From the perspective of this novel, the two wars are not so different. Both wars hover on the edge of this tale of civilian life, yet offer it a terrible knowledge. The society will fracture as its members accept or reject this knowledge.
The family, and the society, break along sex lines. The book traces not simply the contrary attitudes of men and women toward war; it traces their contrary paths of escape from loss, loneliness, and the fear of death. It is hard to name the problem this creates for the characters. Phillips herself, talking to a New York Times Book Review reporter, spoke confusingly of roles that remain after roles disappear: “Part of what the book is about . . . is the tragedy the traditional male-female roles wreak on people when those roles no longer exist in society” (July 1, 1984).
Perhaps Phillips refers here to the break-up of the husband and wife in this story, who had tried to form the typical post-war family, headed by a father who works outside the home to provide the necessities, assisted by a mother who cares for children and the other tasks inside the home. Unfortunately the system does not work for them. All the father’s business arrangements fall to bad luck, and the wife gradually becomes the breadwinner. Her determination to earn an education degree and take up teaching, never understood by her husband, eventually saves her children from want. The father cannot adjust gracefully to this arrangement. The wife cannot adjust gracefully either-she cannot conceal her contempt for the husband who has failed to provide.
But this summary of selected plot details trivializes Phillips’s novel, which does not teach that American families would be happier if mothers felt free to succeed in the work world and fathers felt free to retreat from it. And while the daughter in this family rejects the traditional home offered her by a protective boyfriend in favor of social activism and haphazard cohabitation with a succession of war vets, the novel does not suggest that she is happier for having freed herself from the traditional female role. The tragedy of men and women in this novel runs deeper than an unfortunate rigidity about the family’s division of labor. In the family stories told here, women repeatedly usurp the man’s role in the community of the home, and then evict him. What happens to the husband in the novel has already happened to the wife’s own father and, in a fashion, will happen to her son. He will be evicted due not to a changing family economy but a changing political economy, when a nation decides it doesn’t need the war its young men are fighting in a distant land.
We may safely put aside Phillips’s remarks about her own novel, remembering it is the job not of authors but of critics to put into discursive language the issues their works lead us to contemplate. Phillips’s novel depicts the tragedy of men and women who lose the conviction that they have anything to share. They must go on seeing what they are-separate sexes with distinct views of the world-after the communal faith that normally integrates men and women disappears. The family’s war experience does not destroy this faith; rather, it tests the faith, and finds it lacking.
Phillips’s novel, like her short stories, convinces because of its narration. For the most part, Phillips has the characters tell their own stories. Yet in the novel, first-person narration is more accomplished than in the stories. Quiet and conversational, it does not depend on the flashy metaphor or the startling image. The wife, Jean, speaks first, reminiscing about her childhood and marriage, addressing her daughter. In her frankness and directness, we hear what she believes in: the intimacy of the mother/daughter bond, the shared understanding of women. Her story confirms the belief. The late, last child of her parents, she was the one who helped her mother make ends meet after her father’s lumber business failed and who helped her mother after the father, by then a crazed alcoholic, was put in an asylum. She married when her mother lay dying of cancer. “She was bedfast about the time I started seeing him, and I guess I felt the ground going under me.” This chapter ends with the birth of Jean’s daughter: “There were twenty hours, on and off the delivery table three times that night while other women had their babies and got on with it. I thought you were a boy for sure; no girl would cause such trouble. But when I knew I had a daughter, I was so thankful-like my own mother had come back to me.”
Mitch, the husband, speaks next. His voice is measured and formal. At first it seems the speech of a man who has controlled his grief and frustration at many hardships; gradually it comes to seem the contracted voice of a man unsure of his audience. Mitch seems to address his daughter here, yet Phillips does not note this explicitly. At times Mitch speaks as if for the public record: “My mother lived at the farm during her confinement and left right after I was born. The birth certificate gives her name as Icie Younger, but no one ever told me anything about her.” From Mitch’s story we may infer reasons for his reserved style: He did not grow up in a single home, certain that he belonged. After his mother left him he was raised by a series of aunts, sent from one to another as their personal circumstances changed. Mitch cannot frankly communicate his own feelings and experience because, it seems, he cannot be sure anyone cares. In the next chapter we find his letters home from the Pacific theater of the World War. The voice strives bravely and with great decency to keep the harsh news of battle from assaulting those at home. Yet the abrupt optimism, along with the occasional bluntness in a letter to a boyhood friend, betrays an unacknowledged wish to test his family’s reaction to the truth. He needs to know whether they back him up as he confronts war’s terror.
Where the characters cannot speak frankly and naturally for themselves, the author’s third-person interior voice enters to tell us more. Italicized passages recounting painful memories punctuate Mitch’s narration. This voice, rapid and lyrical, most recalls the voices of Phillips’s short stories: Phillips seems to reserve it for that which cannot be squarely faced and analyzed. Another third-person voice gives us Mitch’s thoughts after he returns home from war, rejoins his relatives, and tries to start a business. These voices convey subtly that Mitch met the war with dignity but not with courage, and that in civilian life he will struggle against anger that the war found him inadequate.
Third-person narration gives us the children’s impressions as they are growing up. The boy, Billy, is eager to find his place in the world of men. He is fascinated by his father’s concrete trucks and the airplanes at a local hangar. Danner, the daughter, registers the tensions between her mother and father, the fragile balance within her home. She alternately sympathizes with the world of her mother and that of her brother. When Billy asks her to bicycle out to the airfield early one Sunday before the mother wakes, Danner agrees, crawls with him through a loose panel in the hangar wall and up into the cockpit of a Beechcraft; but unlike Billy, she is terrified of discovery when the watchman enters the hangar.
Billy, in many respects the most attractive and engaging character in the novel, never narrates a chapter in his own voice. He announces his point of view in one succinct line of dialogue, uttered after he has learned his low number in the draft lottery and decided to accept enlistment when it comes: “The best way to be lucky is to take what comes and not be a coward.” Billy writes letters home from Vietnam and like his father before him screens out harsh news of the war from most of the letters. But he speaks frankly to his sister, who had urged him to flee to Canada, fortifying her argument with the grim details of the war she has learned from the war protest movement. It is tempting to hear Danner, who narrates the last chapter of the novel, as the voice closest to the novelist’s. She is the character who tries hardest to break the barriers of sex, to learn about man’s lonely experience in war, to bring that knowledge home. Yet it is not clear Danner ever understands what her brother has to tell her. He tells her about male comradeship in the face of shared danger, the satisfaction of facing risks squarely. Nevertheless Danner continues to feel the war was a crazy accident that unfairly took her brother away.
The title of the novel expresses Phillips’s sense of the barrier between male and female experience. Early in the novel, men dream of machines: Billy of the concrete trucks, Mitch of the fork-lift he used to bury Japanese corpses during the war. Men’s work takes them out of the home to wrestle with giant, inhuman forces-like machines-that they cannot altogether control. The concrete truck may break down just before a big job, the fighter plane may crash. Men’s task calls above all for courage. Women, in contrast, may feel they control the home, shaping and conserving its resources: putting up food for the winter, mending and altering the clothes. They practice fortitude, but not the fierce, almost illogical courage men need. Jean never dreams of the harsh world her husband must live in and never understands her son’s choice of war. Danner at last comes to dream of Billy’s world. But by then, Billy has gone to live in a helicopter gunship, and has wondered if the world he left behind is the dream.