Friday, July 30, 2010

You Are Here, Donald Breckenridge

Headlights crossing ceilings
Metrocards at the subway
Purses hanging on the back of chairs

You Are Here is a novel that mixes up the entire concept of a story.  Breckenridge takes apart a group of people and finds the tiniest of connections between their varying lives in the years proceeding 9/11.  All are unique but some constants remain:  the same newspaper headline being read by different people in different locations, or the same restaurant where they eat, even the same brand of wine.  On the perimeter of the story is a stage play that alternates as part of the story and the story itself (it's complicated!).  At one point, in discussing whether to attend the play, two characters discuss the style, with one suggesting it may be experimental.  The other laughingly translates this to mean it may be pretentious.  I think this is a direct question to the reader from the author:  is this novel simply experimental or is he being pretentious?

I think the experimentation is refreshing, so much so that different passages floored me in surprise (as when, mid-book, he outlines the key diagram to a successful novel, all the way to denouement, in a textbook style).  The characters are not traditional, and as they go about their lives, some of them repeat the conversations of others.  Shoes are a popular subject, as in the dismissal of one man:  "And for him, she is nothing more than a new pair of shoes..."  Some characters find themselves in the same window, watching their reflection, on different days.  In fact, entire phrases and setting are reused with different individuals living in the space.  The references to reflections, which are frequent and usually involve mirrors or windows, are a nod to both the characters lack of reflection in their life as well as the way their lives reflect each other in this fictional style. 

While I think Breckenridge is avoiding traditional style motifs, there seemed to be an underlying theme of underlying things:  subways, feet, sidewalks.  There is a sense of motion and transportation as most of the events take place in the midst of transportation, or shortly before or after. A frequent reference to the Metrocard and the subway show us that their world is in motion, which refers us to the events that follow.  Strangely enough, lipstick and bar glasses (usually empty) were another motif, and I couldn't help but think that this is a nod to these individuals trying to make a mark, to leave something of themselves, as evidence of their existence in the first place. 

The style is different, and at times I was desperately wishing for a paragraph break to help pace the story, as well as dialogue tags so I could more readily identify who was saying what.  I think that's part of what the author intended, though, to keep the reader from settling into a predictable rhythm and missing the switchbacks.  I appreciated that in the midst of his stylistic experimentation, he never gets cutesy or, as the character suggested, pretentious.

Special thanks to Ted Pelton of Starcherone Press for the Review Copy. 

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