Jul 20 2009

You Are Here by Donald Breckenridge

Quinn Latimer

web exclusive


Writing fiction about September 11 is an activity rife with hazards. According to a character in Donald Breckenridge's You Are Here, a story about that day "could be read as sensational because the event was." Though this observation may sound proactively defensive, it is the entirely sincere quandary at the center of this novel, which takes as its subject not only the seismic event of 9/11 but the very act of writing about it. At once a play, a short story, and a novel "loosely based on the production of a performance that never happened" (this claimed by a character named Donald Breckenridge), You Are Here follows a small cast of New Yorkers who move nimbly among these various textual forms in the years spanning 9/11, the Iraq war, and Bush's reelection. Breckenridge's intertextual complications serve two purposes: They mirror 9/11's profound disorientation (and the myriad stories it gave birth to) and shift the reader's attention from plot (the familiar tragedy and its susceptibility to sensationalism) to form. It is the latter, fractured and kaleidoscopic, that suggests a new way to describe an event that is, in its totality, indescribable.

On the surface, You Are Here is engaged with a few doomed relationships. Janet and James—a vapid, middle-aged divorcée and an eager young writer—are not only characters in the first act of the fictional Donald's play but also less than riveted audience members; Stephanie and Alan—a sympathetic if aimless young woman and an older, married architect—are characters both in a short story written by James and in the second act of the play. The first couple's story takes place in 2004; the second, in the summer of 2001. Moving back and forth in time, among characters, and between action and dialogue, the novel possesses an exquisite tidal quality that compensates for the shallowness of some of its characterizations (an effect that Breckenridge, a playwright, seems to have labored for).

In You Are Here's opening lines, the dueling, call-and-response nature of Breckenridge's project is established. "The light from my desk lamp fell upon the conversation between Janet, 'Oh, it's for my benefit,' a childless divorcee in her mid-forties. . . . And James, 'Do you think,' a twenty-four year old aspiring writer who worked part-time in a used bookstore, 'I should write that down?'" Bits of dialogue interrupt the exposition, and the resulting singsong is both lulling and enervating, creating a hum that evokes the communal consciousness of the city itself. For, like any 9/11 novel, You Are Here is also very much about New York and its inimitable inhabitants—not the Upper East Side soirees and anecdotal Central Park moments that so entrance filmmakers, aging novelists, and the New Yorker, but Lower East Side bodegas, nighttime baseball games at McCarren Park, and dingy Queens apartments. That is to say, this is the New York of the Brooklyn Rail, the arts magazine for which Breckenridge—both writer and character—serves as fiction editor.

At times, such reflexivity wears thin: a character reading from a fiction-writing manual; an image of Fassbinder (famous for his own experimental pastiches of theatrical forms) stuck to a gallery's window. But these are quibbles in an otherwise dexterously drawn novel. As You Are Here draws to a close—and ever closer to September 11, which lands on the last page of the book—Breckenridge's strived-for artificiality begins to fall away: It no longer matters that characters are not who they seem, that they speak words put in their mouths by someone else, that their actions are scripted and accompanied by the screech of a folding chair on a stage. As this arch sensationalism stems, the story—and its characters—gain urgency, and Breckenridge's novel becomes much more than just an exquisite exercise in form.

Quinn Latimer is a poet and critic based in Basel, Switzerland. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Frieze, Modern Painters, and the Paris Review, among other magazines.

Mike Washburn

November 26, 2009
11:18 pm

Very nice review. (Note the Brooklyn Rail is a monthly publication, not a weekly one.)

Dave

December 1, 2009
11:21 pm

Hi Mike. Thanks for the correction.

—David O'Neill, Editorial Assistant

bigdata

March 25, 2013
5:05 am

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