Jayne Anne Phillips' Machine Dreams

     In Machine Dreams, Jayne Anne Phillips turns a microscope on American small town mediocrity, and the reader sees a truth behind the 'American dream' that is somewhat disturbing. The American dream consists of machines-- washing machines, trucks, transistor radios, bulldozers cars, planes helicopters and refrigerators. It is a corporate dream manufactured by a ruthless technocracy which, in order to perpetuate its survival, will go as far as sending their young men and women off to the killing fields of Viet Nam. Machine Dreams is about a family, and their roles in American society as represented through the machines they are conditioned to identify with and depend on. "As the title suggests, the stories of Mitch and his wife Jean, of their children Danner and Billy, are intimately linked with the fortunes of American technology." , (Lasdun. J, 1984. pp. 45-6)
This is especially true for the men in the story, although Phillips subtly associates certain machines with gendered roles and the traditionally separate spaces in society which both sexes at that time were expected to occupy. For example, the plant containing the cement trucks is the domain of Mitch, Clayton and young Billy. It is the place where Billy would rather be instead of going to school, and it is the men's workplace from which the symbols of masculinity in the form of roads1 spread out across the countryside--their outside domain is literally and figuratively set in concrete. Conversely, Jean in her domesticity has her sewing machine and the labour saving devices associated with the home and housework. The Hampson children find their gendered roles through the toys they are given to play with. Danner has her transistor radio on all night listening to romantic sentimental pop music whilst on the other side of the wooden partition which Mitch constructed, Billy builds model military aircraft and dreams of flight and war games.
As a child Billy's dreams of flight and his understanding of war come from his toys and the movies he sees. He is given toy military aircraft to assemble and he sees men on the cinema screen fight clean victorious wars. He is pre-destined to be taken far away and die or disappear as a result of war. This is strongly suggested in Machine Dream Danner;

...finally it is so dark that Danner can't see Billy at all. She can only hear him, farther and farther behind imitating with a careful and private energy the engine sounds of a plane that is going down. War movie sounds. ...So gentle it sounds like a song, and the song goes on softly as the plane falls, year after year, to earth. (Phillips p. 331)

War, and machines of war perhaps play the most significant role in bringing home to the reader the darker side of technology. In the chapter Machine Dreams Mitch, 1946 the reality and dogma of war is symbolised by the bulldozer Mitch drives to bury the dead Japanese soldiers who have been killed by machines and are now being buried by one. Mitch has been dehumanised by the whole process of a technological war and struggles with his own sanity, almost not caring if operating the bulldozer sent him insane. In order to survive he tries to convince himself that it was earth he was pushing on the blade of the bulldozer, "...just earth, had to think it was all just earth, like at Wheeling, working on the Reeder road with Clayton." (Phillips 1984 p. 60)
The machines of war, like the helicopter Billy chooses to fly in over Viet Nam, kill the nameless faceless enemy at a distance, and the operators of those hostile machines lose all sense of reality. This is evident when Mitch and Warrenholtz encounter the Jap Zero pilot in a field and Mitch

...drew his own gun and fired--fired again and again into the grass until the chamber was empty and Warrenholtz stood beside him, staring not at the grass, which had long since stopped moving, but at Mitch.(Phillips 1984 p. 85)

This sense of alienation is also felt by Billy on the battlefield leaves him with no choice but to identify with his comrades in arms and his weapons of war. He is selected to fight for a country he can no longer see, by having his birthday "... written on a white plastic ball and bounced around in a machine." (Phillips p. 248) As Billy says in a letter to Danner, " I'm with Luke and the crew and we live in the chopper. These guys are the only country I know of and they're what I'm defending---I'm not stupid enough to think my country is over here. " ( Phillips p. 291).
In a manner of speaking Billy is part of a machine, he is a dehumanised component of the US military machine, which is symbolised by the almost robotic mannerisms of Sergeant Dixon when he visits Jean Hampson to report her son as 'missing in action'. Dixon, like a robot repeats the contents of the telegram verbatim to each family member he encounters, and his replies to Danner's questions are military stock standard non-committal answers. The physical description of Dixon's uniform is crisp and concise and ends with a description of a "...brass medallion with an eagle" ( Phillips p. 311). The gold eagle motif is repeated throughout the novel and becomes the gold eagle which lands on the moon. The Eagle becomes the epitome of US technological wonder--the ultimate machine, and yet when the astronauts took the moon- dust into the capsule, "...it smelled like gunpowder..."(Phillips p. 241). Here, Phillips seems to be alluding to the fact that the Apollo 11 mission, in all its wonder, was meant to serve as a distraction from the political weight of the Viet Nam war, but the smell of gunpowder a quarter of a million miles away on the moon suggests an inescapability from the war on earth.
Throughout the novel Jayne Anne Phillips makes very few, if any, positive projections regarding the role of machines. Most of the machines are associated with either death or social control. They are often the harbinger of unhappiness and dissatisfaction and are often gendered in the most stereotypical of ways--men to trucks, cars and guns and women to domestic appliances. She sees the role of machines as representative of the US corporate monster which doggedly sells the American dream by insidious persuasion thus creating a need for material gain at the expense of all else.

John Magee

Lasdun. James, "Machine Dreams" Encounter, vol. Lx1v. No. 2 Issn. 0013-7073, Feb. 1985.
Phillips. Jayne Anne, Machine Dreams, Faber and Faber Ltd, London, 1994.

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