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Review of You Are Here

You Are Here
By Donald Breckenridge
Starcherone Books, 2008

The thing about Donald Breckenridge’s slim, arrestingly good (and idiotically titled) novel You Are Here that everyone who reads it will notice first is the protracted stylistic gamble he attempts in the way he depicts conversations, so it’s probably best to deal with that gamble right away by answering the most important question: it mostly works.

The book is the unfolding story of Alan and Stephanie and James and Janet, four young people (and all their various friends, enemies, acquaintances, and co-workers) in 1990s New York, and what Breckenridge does throughout is to take the normal interplay in conversational scenes – the serve-and-volley between words and little actions – and completely free it from its theatrical origins, moving it in one bold stroke into the realm of felt, real-world experience. The typical “he said, he thought, he did, she said, she thought, she did” choreography of such moments becomes at once a surreal jumble that feels both stranger and more lifelike:

“It’s been such a gloomy week,” Janet had her hair and nails done the day before, “It’s like the entire city is in mourning again,” when the maid came to clean the apartment, “not that I blame them one bit … I was so depressed on Wednesday as well.” James couldn’t find anywhere to put his hands, “this week has been like one long hangover,” was at a loss for the right words, “before the next nightmare begins,” and was annoyed that all of the things he had prepared to say evaporated just as she buzzed him into her building and he began climbing the carpeted stairs with the bouquet in his right hand, “You know what I mean?”

But as fascinating as this gamble is, it itself is mostly stagecraft, often upstaging the genuine artistry of Breckenridge’s prose and the gentle, assured insight he brings to bear on all his characters. This is the second time I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the sheer literary quality of a novel put out by Starcherone Books (the first was Zachary Mason’s Lost Books of the Odyssey), and I’m starting to think this may not be a simple coincidence. You Are Here is the kind of slim, sporadically-distributed novel many readers will be tempted to skip in favor of more accessible (in all meanings) fare – I urge such readers to find this book and devote a long afternoon to it. Time well spent.

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