Monday 4 February 2013

Some Kind of Masterpiece: Machine Dreams Re-reread

I first read Jayne Anne Phillips' Machine Dreams when it came out, in 1984. In those days I used to waste much good reading time on new fiction - but the time spent reading Machine Dreams was most definitely not wasted: this novel grabbed me from the first page (indeed the first sentence: 'It's strange what you don't forget' - indeed) and left me at the end deeply moved, shaken, and quite amazed by the power and range of this phenomenally gifted debut novelist.
On the face of it, it's a simple enough tale of a family - mother, father, son and daughter - told in a series of snapshots at various points in time, from 1946 to 1972, reaching back a generation or so and out into the community of wider family and friends, but essentially focused on these four. Each section of the book sees events through the eyes of one of them, sometimes in first person, usually in third, and often their dreams are woven into the narrative. Such is the power of Phillips' characterisation that each of them (and several less central figures) comes fully to life almost from their first utterance. By the end they feel, indeed, like family - which makes the denouement all the more shattering...
Machine Dreams was widely praised when it was first published, and great things were predicted for its author, though in the event she has published sparsely and seems to be thought of chiefly as a fine short story writer (which she is). Of her later novels (they are few and far between), I read Shelter when it came out and remember being dazzled by much of it but in the end it somehow didn't work for me. I haven't tried the later novels - perhaps I should? But I have reread Machine Dreams, the first time about ten years ago, in some doubt as to whether it could have been quite as good as I remembered it being - it was, though it didn't hit me with quite such an emotional hammerblow. And now I have reread it again, and I come away more impressed than ever. This time the architecture of the book was more apparent to me - in particular the author's subtle use of recurrent images and scenes, often far distant in time, that echo and illuminate each other. The story had still deeper resonance, the characters seemed more real and present than ever, and the closing pages as moving as they were first time around. I believe Machine Dreams really is some kind of masterpiece. If you haven't read it, I'd urge you to seek it out.

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