(Black Sparrow, 2017)
“The film begins,” And Then (Black Sparrow, 2017) begins, but it doesn’t take readers long to forget we are reading a summarized account of actors acting; a transcription of a script in place of the opening pages of a novel, or a novel so concerned with the detritus of past love, death, and desire it can only be told through the lens of cinema. After all, memory and film both offer us the same fractured, shifting projection. Donald Breckenridge’s fourth novel weaves in and out of frames without ever lacking clarity—a roll of film replaced and inserted in quick, immediate accounts—it only makes sense that And Then begins on someone else’s story.
And what a story Breckenridge starts with, moving through a re-translation of Jean Rouch’s 1965 short Gare du Nord, itself a part of the Paris Vu Par (Six in Paris) anthology. In deciding to begin this way, Breckenridge is implicating readers in his own concerns of voyeurism; we are the privileged witnesses of private spousal arguments; domestic disturbance as entertainment—but for whom? The reader/audience but perhaps, also, the bored actor/participant. The actor who is also more like a spectator in our culture of surveillance and institutionalized entertainment. “They move through the apartment exchanging insults,” Breckenridge writes early in the opening scene. “The casual resignation the actors employ while delivering their lines conveys the impression that the melodramatics on display are as much a part of the couple’s daily routine as brushing their hair and teeth every morning before leaving for work.” And so we move with the melodrama, becoming the camera itself, turning corners and following mannerisms and motivation, scripted action and narrative subconscious, and then, without pause, we cut elsewhere, to real time or something else presented from the past, the hiccup or jolt of déjà vu that occurs when you aren’t sure if you are remembering something you dreamed about in real life, or something you saw in a movie. In our image-rich culture, what’s the difference between dreams and movies and memories? All of them are experienced visually. All of them in And Then play back with studied tempo and deep focus; Breckenridge gives readers a feeling like riding a bicycle through old, discarded film sets, stages half-finished and the scraps of found footage that never made it still circling the projector like a carousel. The footage is our lives.
Or: an encounter on the street in which all the people resemble actors, Jean-Paul Belmondo, or a “run-down version of Gene Hackman”; or: a scenario in which real life reads more like a movie, as when we segue from a handsome stranger’s invitation to escape to a conversation between Suzanne and John in John’s VW, talking about travel fantasies and crossing the gulf of Mexico with an imagined sum of money, rolling joints under the lurking threat of police presence in an adjacent car. The wish for ten grand becomes five grand, the Keys becomes New York City and eventually Mexico. Mexico becomes the beach. The car pulls away; John drives toward the exit, another beginning. Wish fulfilled.
Adorno, a half-century ago, said that the culture industry was teaching us how to speak, how to act, the exact look to give on a first date, when to lean in for the first kiss, and how. Breckenridge’s And Then begs the question of the title. Fifty years later, are the lines even clear anymore? The difference between real life and its re-presentation. What is made and what is born and what is made in our own image? On the sixth day, God created man in his. And then?
The lines we deliver are all from movies. “Are you a prophet?” Suzanne asks John, sometime later, as they plot a robbery in the same car we’ve left them: “John chuckled while placing the roach in the ashtray, ‘No, but I play one on TV,’ then took his foot off the gas, ‘seriously thought,’ stepped on the clutch and downshifted into third, ‘What do you see yourself doing in five years?’ as they made a left onto Atlantic Avenue.”
You’ll have already noticed by this point in the review that Breckenridge’s unusual style of punctuation also mimics the movement of a camera, cross-cutting between visual and audio cues, showing us everything, and everything at the same time, as when a character speaks and the camera moves between action and gesture, or cuts somewhere else while holding on words, a formal displacement and dislocation that matches the thematic concerns of convergence and disconnect which are at the heart of And Then. Sometimes the intentional fracturing of dialogue and description serve to turn the screw of tension by creating more space, more time, more resistance to a question, or decision, or simple a resistance to time passing; a resistance to passage. Breckenridge’s true achievement with And Then is that he lengthens time, stretching out a moment and expanding it upon all possible angles, in a kinetic, explosive way. Because we are forced to hold on to the scene, we read—or watch—with taut concentration, as during another conversation between two people who might otherwise be a couple:
Steam hissed through the narrow pipe to the left of the window. She removed a cigarette from the pack, “This is exactly,” put it between her lips, “this is exactly what happened,” pulled a match from the book, “we had this conversation,” and struck it twice on the back, “a week ago,” finally lighting the cigarette, “Why are you so afraid of me?” All his doubts about her turned into a sinking feeling of betrayal. “It was more like a month ago … and don’t say that because I know that you know better.” She dropped the match in the glass ashtray, “You promised me that you weren’t going this anymore,” sat in a chair before exhaling, “and nobody is up here with me.”
At other times, the cross-cutting becomes a commentary on the book’s own transitory movement between stories and characters, dreams and hauntings, people who are already dead and people who move through life as ghosts, like Suzanne, who keeps appearing, and disappearing, in body and through speech.
Suzanne could claim she was anyone, “I’m at a payphone,” calling from anywhere, “in a diner in Winslow,” just another disembodied voice carried over a wire, “in Arizona,” after feeding the phone a handful of coins. The microphone beneath his chin converted the question into signals sent through the network, “Do you have family out there?” and into the receiver she was holding to her left ear where they were reconverted into sound.
Breckenridge’s interlacing stories—including his own devastating, first-person account of his father’s illness and eventual death—are each, in their own way, ghost stories; a claiming and re-claiming of traces, of that found footage, unspooled and projected during our most haunted moments. Other times, it is the way characters occupy another person, the penetrating gaze of the voyeur, which arrests us. While house-sitting for a professor he is in love with, Tom discovers a comfortable pair of black lace panties in her underwear drawer: “… wearing them in her bedroom while imagining how they must look and feel on her shapely ass was a brand new thrill.” Later, when they talk on the phone, the levels of invasiveness offered by the voyeur fantasy becomes almost comical, if it wasn’t so bereft of hope:
He didn’t tell Paula he’d searched all of her closets, cabinets and drawers. Or confess to reading every letter he could from her former lovers. Or say anything about fetishizing her wardrobe. Or mention his experiments with her vibrator. Or relate his profound disappointment after discovering that the entire shelf of black and white Mead Composition notebooks that she used as journals for nearly a decade were written in Greek. He claimed that his time in her apartment was going to be incredibly productive. She said that was what she had hoped would happen.
The amount of insight we get into characters we will actually never meet is another move toward projecting a spectral landscape, reminiscent of Roberto Bolaño’s insistence on narrative backstory and the keen awareness of world-building, a universe of characters circulating a very real landscape, made realer by information gleaned even in moments, Breckenridge seems to say, when the camera is not rolling. During a scene in Tom’s house-sitting story, Breckenridge achieves this by detailed, often intimate reports of what Tom reads as he’s hungrily scanning her old letters and journals, exchanges with people that Tom has never met and never will, but people whom he can project his own fantasies, versions and perversions, upon.
When we move, when we move on, when we depart and when we return, to people, to places, what remains and what is irrevocably lost? And what do we find out about ourselves? “‘We might not be going anywhere when we die,”’ Breckenridge writes, in his own story, during an exchange with his dying father. “Maybe our souls linger in the worst possible places … maybe we just linger in the location of our misery.” Breckenridge locates this presence before he cuts one last time, to a large truck, a U-Haul or street-cleaning car. The long, slow fade-out of the haul. The footage is our lives.