Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Reading group: Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips

John suggested this novel, which he remembered causing a sensation when it was published in 1984. Set in an unidentified town in the American mid-south it tells the story of three generations of a family from the Depression to the era of the Vietnam war in the early seventies. It is told in a spare yet haunting prose via the alternating perspectives of husband and wife Jean and Mitch, who marry soon after the Second World War, and their two children, Danner, a girl, and Billy her younger brother who ends up in Vietnam. Danner's is however the central consciousness: the novel begins with Jean's and then Mitch's first-person reminiscences of their experiences growing up, as told to their daughter Danner, which makes it clear that all of the following intimate third-person sections are filtered through Danner's consciousness, and suggests, as John said, that the novel is to a great extent autobiographical.

The events described, as John said, are mundane in the extreme except for the way they are punctuated and coloured by war which, taking place elsewhere, nevertheless takes away the men and thus affects the family. John said that to some extent the novel, with its grounding in mundane day-to-day details, could be said to be boring, though this could be a deliberate contrast with the drama of what happens to Billy in Vietnam. I pointed out that, in spite of the seeming innovation of the multiple voices (and some temporal overlapping across the voices), in fact overall the book is structurally very linear. However, John said that oddly he had remembered the drama concerning Billy as coming much earlier in the novel than he discovered it to be on this second reading, and wondered if this was significant: while it comes only towards the end it detonates in such a way that in retrospect everything that has gone before is coloured by it.

John felt that the book was a depiction of the breakdown of the American Dream. The people are so ordinary, and what happens to them - even the effect of the wars on them - is so ordinary that, as Jenny said, it belies the myth that anyone can be anything, and anyone can be special. The family aspires in true American-Dream tradition - Jean's father begins with a successful business; Mitch's family own land and a successful farm; after the second world war Mitch and his uncle, Clayton, begin a concrete business which at first succeeds - but everything is doomed, and the family moves away from middle-class relative affluence until Mitch is an unhappy divorced travelling salesman living in a basement with his aunt. All of the men in the book are obsessed with machines - with cars and concrete-tipping vehicles and aeroplanes - and John pointed to the old prison building in the book, full of old rusting vehicles and machines, as a symbol of the breakdown of an increasingly mechanised society and the American Dream. Jenny, who had liked the book, saw an additional significance in the machine imagery: the people were cogs in the machine of society. For this reason there's actually no real point in aspiring, and this is why, towards the end, Billy becomes fatalist about being drafted.

People were generally agreed that it was, on this level, a depressing book, though nearly everyone thought it was redeemed from this by the liveliness and resonance of the prose. Clare, who was particularly impressed by the prose, said that she had to agree with John about the ordinariness of the events and the piling on of domestic and workaday detail, and that she probably wouldn't have been able to bear reading the bulk of the book if the prose hadn't been so brilliant. There was agreement that the book took on a more dramatic life towards the end, but Ann said she felt you had to really suffer to get there: she said she kept feeling she just couldn't stand another one-page description of 'how they made the grits' etc. Doug, who had been pretty silent, now said that he couldn't stand the book at all, and he hadn't liked any of the characters, and that was pretty much all he had to say on the subject.

Mark now stood up for the book by pointing out that it was one of the first to address the subject of the Vietnam war, coming before any of the famous eighties films. He said the piling on of workaday detail was justified precisely because it showed the texture of daily life into which the wars seeped. John commented that there might be a theoretical point in that kind of inclusivity, but the question was, did it make for a good novel? People pointed to an episode concerning a leper in Mitch's childhood (an episode that was in fact out of the ordinary) and the fact that it didn't seem to relate particularly to anything else in the novel. There was a general suspicion that it was in fact something that had happened in the author's family, compelling her to include it, and that this may be the impulse behind the inclusion of so much of the detail.

There was some disagreement as to whether it was possible to identify with the characters. I said that it was, that I had identified with them, but Clare said that, brilliantly written as she thought they were, you were looking at them from a certain distance rather than identifying with them. I could see that this might apply to the characters other than Danner, since their perceptions are clearly filtered through hers, but I didn't think it applied to Danner herself. In any case, we even share the characters' dreams, and in the sections where Danner's mother Jean reminisces, speaking directly to her, there is to me such a sense of the closeness of the two that identification with Jean is created for the reader. I think I was alone in this view, though, and John even went so far as to say he thought the characters were deliberately ciphers/stereotypes intended to show the typical nature of their American experience.

John said finally that, although he had to say that he hadn't found the book as stunning as he had when he read it years ago, he still thought it very good, and I think that most people, apart from the determinedly curmudgeonly Doug, and possibly Ann, agreed.


Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here
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