Donald Breckenridge, You Are Here (Starcherone, 2009)
Luckily, I’ve known Donald Breckenridge for years, so I was able to plunge into his new novel, You Are Here, and ignore the off-putting remarks in the promotional copy.
This material states, for example, that the novel “follows a dozen characters…But the main story here is Breckenridge’s virtuoso prose.” Further, a backcover blurbist characterizes the book as “a masterful sleight of hand.” Both these depictions assume, I guess, that readers of innovative fiction are too classy to care about the lowly plot and only take pleasure in inhaling scintillating sentences that bubble off the text like emanations from a glass of champagne.
I find this assumption untenable. Even Madame Bovary, perhaps the most verbally dazzling novel ever, is not only memorable for good writing but for its keen observation and devastating portrait of French provincial life. To put it programmatically, a good piece of fiction is one in which prose and story-meaning are inseparable, and where, indeed, any unusual stylistic move is at the service of clarifying facts of contemporary life, hence, for example, Faulkner’s experiments, hence Breckenridge’s.
Two crucial differentials separate You Are Here from a conventional novel. The first, described very accurately by blurbist Lewis Warsh, is this: The book “is a record of interruptions and distractions, a kaleidoscope of details and snippets.” Certainly, traditional novels interweave dialogue, scenic descriptions, and ancillary information, but Breckenridge goes further by making interruptions obtrusive in various ways, such as cutting a spoken comment in half with an interpolated observation. Here’s an instance: “‘That’s not what you,’ Janet placed her hand on this thigh, ‘really want to do.’”
Second, the author works with charred, intense fragments. In other words, a given scene, such as the first meeting outside a shoe store of two people who will begin an affair, is followed by a time jump to, perhaps, a day the couple spend at a friend’s beach house, with no description of what happened in between, except as it is described in passing in this second scene.
To be clear, neither strategy makes the book difficult to comprehend for an alert reader, but each opens a new avenue of experience, for these techniques are handmaidens to a specific interpretation of reality at Ground Zero, New York City in 2001 and 2004 under the reign of Bush Jr.
The plot/focus of the novel is two mirroring romances, not particularly charmed ones: one, the hook-up of an older, married man (Alan) and a young temp worker (Stephanie), and the other of a young bookstore clerk/writer (James) and an older well-fixed divorcee (Janet). Neither liaison is fueled by love. Instead of romance, the couples are looking for experience, escape from loneliness, security, and other advantages. These stories, abutting a number of vital subplots, are filled with carefully culled detail and realistic, always evocative, patter.
So, what gives? Why interlace these stories with these particular methods of composition? Superficially, it would seem that since the trysts are not entered into whole-heartedly, but more as playful distractions—Janet often has to ask Mark to pay attention, while Alan is often drunk during his interactions with Stephanie—then the constant interruptions of the normal flow might be taken to attest to the overall short attraction spans of the lead characters, particularly the males.
Still, we can go deeper. For the reading experience of this book is not a sense of spinning off in different directions in line with the interruptions, but of two of the characters, Janet and Stephanie, both of whom are eventually jilted, trying to maintain and enrich their relationships in the midst of very unpromising circumstances. The sense is the one William James identifies in A Pluralistic Universe as “sustaining a felt purpose against felt obstacles.” The need to override intrusions puts the readers and this pair of characters into the same bind.
At the same time, Breckenridge’s use of disaggregated slices of life is a revealing dramatic device. Rather than picking out the more exciting mini-climaxes in the counterpointed affairs, he mixes key events, such as the couple’s first contact, with much less significant scenes, yet both types are so plumbed that he reveals any moment in a developing/degenerating romance, if properly mined, will exhibit a full range of emotional resonance.
Perhaps, though, the type of things said by the publicist that was quoted at the beginning of this piece do apply to less adept writers, whose prose styles can be broken off from their contents. However, in the case of You Are Here, the writer has so conjoined style and substance that intellectual invigoration is combined with experiential breadth.