Review: You Are Here by Donald Breckenridge


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 118 in June, 2009.

At a key moment in Donald Breckenridge’s You Are Here, the author (or a character so named) is woken from a drunken stupor by another character, who will tell him something of importance about the plot, which concerns the parallel affairs of a young woman (Stephanie) and an older man (Alan), and a young man (Mark) with an older woman (Janet). This is not to suggest, by the way, that drunken stupors are common affairs for the author-character. Rather, it should be noted that a large part of America boozed itself to sleep beside him on that historic night of 2004 as part of a “celebration” of Bush Jr.’s reelection.

Now while the novel is not overtly political, the imprint of the larger society’s creeping to the right in government policies, media promotions and the public’s mindset is clearly evident in the text.

The book can be read as a parable of the interrelations of the rich and poor. Both the older people have money and make a big show of it, taking their young, penurious lovers to classy, pricey restaurants as well as acting in other ostentatious manners. And both the rich possess most of the initiative (or is it the effrontery). They are the ones who take the first steps in starting the affairs. No pun intended, although Alan does pick up Stephanie after watching her buy shoes.

However, it is not just money, but a certain degree of male privilege that determines the sexual power politics of the story. The rich guy, who has a double measure of authority, being both male and loaded, is able to unceremoniously dump the girl when she gets needy, i.e., she needs a job. While Mark, though he is beholden to Janet for expensive meals and wine, can ditch her for a younger acquaintance. However, his relative freedom, again, is rooted in money. He does have a job (as a bookstore clerk) and the vocation of being a writer, which gives him some leeway in his romantic dealings. Stephanie, in contrast, is a temp, who never finished college and so, has zero prospects. She is dependent on her mentor/lover/keeper, and so has few bargaining chips in relationship negotiations.

These are the parameters of a bone-dry accurate depiction of the ways of the heart in this New Stone Age. That is the contents, but I’ve yet to note that the novel is not constructed along the lines of a traditional narrative, but is strongly affected by the use of two experimental devices.

One is the shimmering use of jump cuts. By this I mean that the author, after establishing the beginning of one of the affairs, for example, moves to a closely observed scene of the couple weeks later, without filling in the blanks of what happened in between. This startling technique captures the narrow intensity of the time, which is to say, each episode is maximally intense and seems decisive in the progress of the relationship to those involved in it. Yet, in fact, each is really part of a predictable narrative arc, one running through the traditional rich guy picks up plaything, enjoys her and then tires of her sequence. Through this means the author casts an ironic glance on the purported (but in reality simply overhyped) effervescence and excitement of the boom times under Bush.

Breckenridge’s other pertinent device is to split moments and casual conversation with highly intrusive notations of fact. For instance, he writes, “The wooden blinds drawn before the amber streetlight outside her bedroom window, “The last memory,” projected a thin row of horizontal shadows across the bed, “of seeing my father alive,” onto the wall behind them, “was when I was sitting on the edge of the bed watching Nadia Comaneci.”

At times, this adds to the book’s theatrical flair, but it can also be taken to register the age’s obsession with facts: poll ratings, stock quotations and so on, that overwhelms the media and floods out to stunt and twist relationships. For instance, Janet and Mark buys a number of glasses of wine at a restaurant, rather than a bottle, and then end up fascinated and startled by the fact that this cost $12 a pop. Uninterrogated and unintegrated into any larger vision of, say, what a better life might be, such facts substitute for genuine conversation, showing how few resources Americans have left for constructing a rich emotional life.

This is just one of the sobering but powerful conclusions that is put forth in this remarkable work.

— Jim Feast