Using the backdrop of a small Southern town slowly awakening to the cultural and social rumblings of the mid and late 20th century, Jayne Anne Phillips is attempting in this novel to weave the lives, dreams, and remembrances of the Hampson clan of Bellington, West Virginia, into a mythic mosaic of the sort found in Faulkner. Written with a sharp eye for detail and an ear well-tuned to language, the book nonetheless never lives up to the reader’s hopes. For the creation of a myth demands more than the illusion of significance. Myth affirms unity over fragmentation and requires an author to establish the universal importance of particular and seemingly unimportant details. Machine Dreams falls short of these standards.

“It’s strange what you don’t forget,” remarks Jean Hampson as she reminisces with her daughter Danner in the opening scene. Yet not everything r membered is necessarily important, a truth which Phillips often ignores as she piles detail upon meaningless detail.

The very structure of the novel militates against any clear understanding of the theme. Phillips has chopped Machine Dreams into 17 sections, few of which cohere. Some of Danner’s sections are clearly intended as revisions of her mother’s own life story, and the letters from a son serving in Vietnam are obvious echoes of his father’s earlier V-mail letters. But the book too often reads like a collection of short stories—some of them good but not integrated into a compelling whole.

Because of the title, the reader sus pects that some deep meaning lies buried in the frequent dreams about machines—World War II bulldozers, cars in snowstorms, ominous airplanes. Yet it is difficult to say just what is being symbolized. Is it the mechanistic materialism of industrial America? Is it brute or brutal death? Or is it merely the author’s stunning realization that people occasionally die—some deservedly, others unjustly.

Machine Dreams will perhaps have brief appeal for those readers looking for hostile portrayals of America. When her brother dies in Vietnam, Danner remarks: “I felt betrayed by my government but I’d expected betrayal: I just hadn’t expected betrayal to such a degree.” But like a typical dream—a succession of images and half-formed ideas—this book will soon be forgotten

Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips; E. P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence; New York.