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Jayne Anne Phillips: Machine Dreams

Brian Jarvis has asked, How Dirty is Jayne Phillips? He was not, of course, referring to her personal hygiene but whether she was a true disciple of the school of writing known as Dirty Realism. Jarvis suggests five possible facets of dirty realism though, I would think, for most people who still know and care about these matters, the three key features are tales of blue collar workers, the relationship between fiction and socio-economic status and the use of a sparse, minimalist language. He points out that Phillips focuses on what he calls the abject, i.e. dirt, disease, bodily functions and the like. Phillips is from West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the United States, which might partially explain this. He also mentions her obsession with popular culture. We do see this in this book, as well as dealing with the mundane lives of her characters. So is it dirty realism? Yes, in some sense, it probably is but is that terribly important? No, not really.

The book is a semi-autobiographical account of the Hampson family. Phillips uses letters, telegrams and recollections of four family members. The four are mother and father, Jean and Mitch, and their son and daughter, Billy and Danner. We follow the story of the family from the Depression to the present time. The story is a fairly ordinary one. Jean and Mitch’s marriage isn’t particularly happy. Jean’s love had died when she was seventeen and Mitch was definitely a second choice. They struggle along financially, as many other similar families do. Mitch opens a concrete plant but there is not enough demand and the project is a failure. Jean has to become the main breadwinner but the marriage peters out, as Mitch never recovers from the failure of his plans, and the couple divorce. The concrete plant is just one of the machines we see in the story which, as a good dirty realist should, has a variety of machines, including cars (where Billy and Danner pursue their sexual adventures), TVs and radios and the machinery of war, when Billy is drafted.

Billy is drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, while Danner has legal problems. In short, the children, both wary of their parents – the demanding mother and remote father – do not seem as though they are going to do any better. Of course, the novel is about lives unfulfilled, the theme of dirty realism and the theme of many lives, real and fictional. The American dream, Phillips tells us, is seriously flawed for most people. Machines and life do not offer any easy or happy way out.

Publishing history

First published 1984 by Dutton/Seymour Lawrence