Donald Breckenridge, You Are Here, Starcherone
When I was an undergrad studying philosophy I had a friend who used to insist that time didn’t exist. “It’s a function of us as organisms, as humans, not an actual property of the universe like mass,” he would say. We would argue; Time a physical dimension. No. Time was simply an illusory conceptual/linguistic construction, with its sense determined by the role it plays in inferential relations . No. Time was more Kantian, to be construed as a metaphysically necessary condition of possible experience. No. After much debate we never came to an agreement about the ontological status of time. However, both of us managed to agree that the perception of time is malleable, and it was this very malleability that gave way to questions about the properties – and indeed, reality – of time itself
One of fictions great freedoms is that definite answers to questions such as these are not required in order to exploit the flexibility of the notions involved. Indeed, one need not even attempt to answer these questions in order to engage with the slipperiness of the temporal – the knowledge that this slipperiness exists, and the ability, and will, to play with it, is enough.
Time, and more particularly, a feeling of simultaneity, permeates Donald Breckenridge’s You are Here. This sense of simultaneity shows itself as a resonance resultant from Breckenridge’s pinging of connections between characters through time, which in turn creates a standing wave of content.
And ping Breckenridge does. Throughout the novel connections abound. Janet and James are dating, she a well-to-do divorcee in her mid 40s, he an aspiring writer in his 20s. Alan and Stephanie are having an affair, he a married man of some wealth, she a temp. Stephanie used to date Cindy, who is directing a two act play entitled An Old Lover and written by a character named Donald. The first act of the play involves two characters, Janet and James, having dinner, based on the first set of Janet and James, and a dinner they shared. Moreover, James has written a short story which involves Alan and Stephanie, based on “something that…almost happened to someone [he] didn’t know very well.” The second act of Donald’s play takes place on a park bench between Alan and Stephanie. The play, however, never actually happens. As the Donald character says when asked if he is turning his play into a novel, “There isn’t really going to be any play…it’s all fiction.”
The metafictional knottiness serves a key role in the book, blurring the distinction between events and their replication/reenactment. This impact is heightened by a technique Breckenridge employs throughout, that of inserting fragments of dialog in the middle, beginning, end, or some variation thereof, of narrative description. Not only does he do this with the conversations and actions at hand, but also with flashbacks and memories, material tangentially related to the conversation or action at hand but directly related to the makeup of the characters. This disruption to the “normal” flow of the narrative and dialog creates a fractured, modular, “slippery” quality to the prose, rendering our curiosity about the status of the text (is it the play we’re reading, or the events the play was based on, or the story which takes place in the second act of the play, or the events the story was based on…) at times almost painfully acute.
Roughly, the novel takes place during two time periods, in the months before September 11, 2001, and in those leading up to the re-election of G.W. Bush, and directly after. However, the book is laced with unannounced flashbacks that penetrate conversation and narrative description, particularly as one reads into the second half of the book, where all the characters have been deployed and their various circumstances brought to light.
Placing the re-election of G.W. Bush and the September 11th attack on the Twin Towers at the end of the course of actions of the characters renders the activities of the characters up until these points the events leading up to just these huge, catastrophic events (though of course not in a causal way – the lives of the characters are not instrumental in the catastrophes, they are simply the lives surrounding them) Consequently, the articulation and reconstruction of the characters’ actions serves as a snapshot of the surrounding terrain.
The snapshot is less than pretty, and the relationships contained within are a reminder of the wages of consumption. James is looking to siphon off of Janet’s life and love experience in order to benefit his writing, while Janet appears for the most part to be biding her time, killing boredom and loneliness for a lack of anything else to do. Alan approaches Stephanie and sleeps with her in a fashion that strikes the reader as a rather garden variety form of sexual predation, which, of course, it is. Stephanie strikes the reader as aimless and looking for a sugar daddy, spending her time shopping and paddling around in her relationship with Alan, then discussing its ins and outs with her friend Karen. These relationships are not special in any dynamic sense, and in most cases their consequences are what we might expect. Janet tells James he’d be happier with someone younger and James is in fact surprised how much he’s fallen for Janet. Alan discards the relationship between himself and Stephanie as casually as he acquired it. No, these are not special lives; they’re just the lives of New Yorkers, and that’s part of the point.
The other part of the point, however, is that they are lives whose events are articulated and rearticulated within the novel, and as such, they accrete ironic meaning within the text. Consequently, intertextual questions of the status of actions and events (what is the play, what is the novel, what is the initial event) become almost if not totally impossible to answer – they are all fiction after all. We see the texture of lives and events not as life but as life reconstructed. This is life as we imagine it, and Breckenridge has provided not a reconstruction of things as they were, because this is impossible, but as things as the novelist must present them. The extra work involved is because he has chosen to let us know.