Many readers have recently noted an important change in today's fiction - away from post-modernist indirection and irony, toward fully developed narratives featuring strongly drawn characters in familial and social contexts. You could say that this simply evinces cyclical repetition, that the time of conventional realistic fiction has come round again. But I think there's more to it than that.
I sense in contemporary novels - many of which concern themselves with such traditional values as involvement with family, connection with birthplace, adherence to inherited behavior - not just a knee-jerk acceptance of what we're told we must hold onto, but a wary intimation that our chances to do so may be dwindling, a fear that the world with which we identify ourselves is in danger of vanishing.
These emphases seem to me crucial in two current first novels. Both examine families profoundly affected by contemporary traumas. Neither is without serious flaws. But each shows an ambitious narrative and thematic reach and a concern for the integrity and variety of human character that we usually associate with fiction of an earlier time.
A Handbook for Visitors From Outer Space, by Kathryn Kramer, is a crowded patchwork story set mostly in the Northeast in a fictional town. Arborville is an enclave of Middle-American dullness and complacency. The time appears to be the present, or the immediate future. An enigmatic war is in progress. No one knows who the enemy is or what is happening on battlefields where soldiers in trenches await instructions that never come. It's as if our generalized fears of impending destruction were given form.
The context of menace is echoed by a pattern of failures, deceptions, and abandonments that slowly, wonderfully draws together Kramer's large cast of characters. First and foremost is the story's nominal hero, Cyrus Quince, a handsome and popular son of Arborville who enters Foreign Studies School hoping to become a diplomat. He falls in love with the violin virtuoso Fritz Quadrata Ludwicker, the incestuous child of a family of grand mal eccentrics. Throughout a series of bizarre and upsetting experiences, Cyrus essentially retains those ''impossible idealistic expectations of himself and the whole world'' that make him the last best hope of his elderly grandfather, a general turned pacifist. The grandfather urges him to preserve his experiences in a ''handbook'' to be left for the extraterrestrials that may happen upon the planet after we've destroyed ourselves. Though there's no consistent pretense that Cyrus is indeed narrating, the novel is supposedly the handbook he's writing.
It's impossible to telescope the plot, which essentially consists of satirical glimpses of ''the war'' in progress, the story of Cyrus's fragmented family and his own variously requited affections, and also that of the Ludwickers of New Jersey - dotty recluses. Suffice it to say that Kramer weaves these several fabrics together with enviable skill and directs us to a conclusion that powerfully affirms her novel's nihilistic suggestiveness even as it celebrates her characters' reverence and passion for life.
This is not a perfect book; there are distracting awkwardnesses and redundancies scattered through it. But it's a real novel, and nobody who loves novels should miss it.
Machine Dreams is a first novel by noted young short-story writer Jayne Anne Phillips. This is the story of a West Virginia family told by its four members in a variety of forms: narrative reminiscences; monologues addressed, for example, from mother to daughter; war letters a young soldier sends home from the Philippines, then, 30 years later, those his son sends from Vietnam. The period thus chronicled covers some 40 years, and the basic changes during it comprise a devolution from hardworking idealism and innocent patriotism into a sullen compromise with destroyed expectations, which, Phillips clearly suggests, typifies America today.
The seeds of such disenchantment are implanted in the story from its outset. Jean Danner, growing up in the 1930s, loses her father to madness and her beloved mother to terminal illness. Mitch Hampson, whom she'll later marry, is himself left fatherless, then abandoned by his uncaring mother. Both Jean and Mitch yearn for the comforts and unity of family life; they imagine their children succeeding and prospering where they struggled and backtracked. But Mitch's business fails when his partner dies; Jean goes back to work, and the strains between them lead to their separation. Their daughter, Danner, goes on to college as planned, but her younger brother, Billy, after giving further schooling a halfhearted try, drops out and simply waits for the Army to take him , over his parents' disappointment and Danner's efforts to shuttle him off to Canada to avoid the draft. What happens to Billy crystallizes the Hampsons' losses and dejections and makes for some of the grimmest and most moving climactic pages to be found anywhere in contemporary fiction.
''Machine Dreams'' is as stark and gray as a novel can be, but its effect is anything but depressing, because Phillips's mastery of the details of small-town life conjures up one unforgettable, exhilarating picture after another. The book's basic strategy is to depict aspects of familiar life with such color and force that we feel all the more powerfully her people's eventual, inevitable loss of what means most to them. It may be objected that their understanding of the social and political currents swirling about them is myopic - but that's just the point: The book is about how large, impersonal actions permanently alter ordinary lives.
The most interesting of Phillips's devices is the pattern of images affiliated with her title - which refers to the way men and boys love cars, dump trucks and bulldozers, airplanes and spacecraft. Images of flight keep recurring; eventually they're displaced by suggestions of falling. This may well be manipulative, but the manipulations are extremely skillful.