Review of Donald Breckenridge’s And Then (USA: David R. Godine, 2017)
by Ian Tan
When by thy scorn, O murderess, I am dead,
And that thou think’st thee free
From all solicitation from me,
Then shall my ghost come to thy bed
John Donne, ‘The Apparition’
As you lie looking up for thunder again,
this cool touch does not betoken rain;
it is my spirit that kisses your mouth lightly.
Keith Douglas, ‘Canoe’
Halfway through Donald Breckenridge’s highly allusive yet strangely recognizable novel And Then, the flighty junkie Suzanne is painting a room in an apartment she shares with Paula, a weary academic who has had her vicarious brush with the history of post-war Europe through the experiences of her past lovers. As she lays out the newspapers on the floor, Breckenridge’s elusive narrator splashes out the headlines across the page in bold lettering which serves to both punctuate and ironically underplay their contextual import: ‘David Berkowitz’s Letter To Jimmy Breslin From Kings County Medical Center’; ‘Hurricane Anita Moving in on Galveston TX’. These moments of disruption recall the chapter from James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses entitled ‘Aeolus’, where jingoistic newspaper slogans jostle with emergent political and cultural discourses to define a Dublin marked both by modern capitalism and anachronisms. More than any novelist before him, Joyce understood how consciousness of the present cannot be divorced from the past which arrives to us not as holistic concepts, but in fragments which nonetheless unsettle our need for coherence and closure. Haunted by the ghosts of Shakespeare, Irish nationalism and the English novel, Ulysses succeeds by creating implied order out of fragmentation in its impressive vision of what the novel could be and what it could accomplish. Indeed, what is the fragment if not ghostly in its very import and structure, for the fragment sustains its own mysterious intelligibility not by reference to the current context of citation, but to the past it brings with it, a past which makes the present uncanny? If, as Gaston Bachelard reminds us, every house is a haunted house, then the contemporary novel’s engagement with literary history can be envisioned as a housing of linguistic fragments, the ghosts of other texts and the spectral lineaments of form.
Breckenridge’s novel steps into this space both in its treatment of ghosts within its narrative(s) and its diegetic momentum which encapsulates both disappearance and the ambiguous promise of return. It begins with an enigmatic description of two segments of a film (thereby announcing its principle of fragmentation in the cinematic language of splicing) where the same woman leaves her stultifying middle-class milieu only to be met with a wealthy but disaffected ‘Belmondo-type’ figure offering her ‘an extraordinary life of adventure, a life of unlimited love and endless freedom’. This opening movement sets up several motifs and ideas which will find their ghostly echoes in the main ‘narrative’ – cars and travel, confinement and escape, death and its effects on the living. Within the three main story threads, Breckenridge interweaves moments which imbricate, overlap and fold together characters and plots: the photographs of attractive women Tom sees in Paula’s apartment evince a mysterious connection with Brian, a photographer who shoots Suzanne at the beach, and a fantasy sequence involving military planes teasingly gestures towards the buried story of Suzanne’s father and indeed, to the unresolved trauma of the Vietnam War. As the resonances and allusions accumulate like so much debris from the past, Breckenridge invites the reader to weave together past and present in order to see how the diachronous implications of history and cultural memory impinge upon the synchronicity of narrative and storytelling.
Breckenridge punctuates this point most clearly in his montage-like juxtaposition of speech and action. Take for example this conversation between Suzanne and John:
Suzanne caught a glowing firefly, “You know my mother,” it slowly crawled around her wrist, “did that same thing to me,” before drifting away on a warm breeze. He closed the door then asked, “Did what to you?” They climbed a narrow trail through the knee-high grass. “Just left one day,” the beach was nearly deserted, “after my father died.” Waves pushed against the shore in sets of three.
Dialogue and movement are broken apart, as the voices of Suzanne, John and the narrator jostle for the reader’s attention on the page. As the reader continually synthesizes the speeches and the logic of the plot, he participates in a way of reading which embraces the disembodied fragment as the dominant rhetorical mode of the narrative. Behind this stands Breckenridge’s avowal of radical openness, where the fragment anticipates another fragment which might alter our interpretive grasp of the entire situation. In place of the overdetermined characterization and conventional plotting of the realist novel, Breckenridge gives us the contingency of the moment embodied in characters who are fully immersed in the present, responding to very change in gesture, tone and mood.
And yet, in a novel about haunting, the ghost of the realist novel never leaves Breckenridge, for it is the textured descriptions of character and situations which work most effectively in And Then. Breckenridge evokes a shared history of repression and violence involving both Suzanne’s father and her past lover Ursula, themselves Marxist academics. In prose which combines journalistic reportage and narrative construction, Breckenridge straightforwardly details a past life of personal disappointment and collective betrayal:
Ursula had been a member of the SDS and was arrested during a demonstration in the summer of ’68. In the fall of ’72 she was detained after a police raid on a suspected RAF safe house in West Berlin. Although neither incident led to a single conviction (or even a fine) they were used against her when she applied for a research position that was to examine the nefarious roles multinational corporations played in the coup that has taken place in Greece, and how these corporations profited from the nascent police state.
These sections of the text evince an opposite movement to the indetermination of the fragmented narration, for they highlight the irrevocability of the past and its tragic consequences on both the private and public spheres. Indeed, no reader of And Then will not be moved in some degree by the parts of the novel narrated by Breckenridge himself, which shifts to the personal mood in describing, often in heart-wrenching and uncompromising detail, his father’s painful battle with cancer and his death. In the telling of his father’s painful descent into incomprehension and debility, Breckenridge deals with intense emotions of sorrow and guilt, stitching together a personal family history which powerfully compels because it is unadorned. The tragedy of death and the burden of past memories must be dealt with in as direct a way as possible:
I shared every significant experience with my father. Each passion, success, failure, ambition and frustration passed through his townhouse. Every episode, which comprised my late teens, twenties and thirties, decades of poverty I embraced while editing and writing, was sounded out at his table.
By cutting between stylistic innovation and conventional confessional, Breckenridge’s novel tunes its readers’ sensibilities both towards the ungraspable future and obdurate past, the present space of utterance being kept in thrall to traces of the ghosts of history, and sensing the ghost that it will eventually come to be.
The attentive reader will also note a third narrative register in the novel, which is implicit at first but then becomes more apparent towards the end. In this mode, Breckenridge’s narrator turns his focus not to describing people or events, but things as they are. Here is a passage detailing the things he finds in drawers:
The drawers contained a jumble of colorful chest ribbons and medals, citations, generic-looking eyeglasses with thick lenses, business cards from former colleagues at defunct corporations, road maps, an empty box of tissues, dismantled mechanical pens, a shattered compass …
The organizing gaze of the narrator presents the reader with a world of things which persists when nobody else does. As Philip Larkin writes in his great poem about death in which he anxiously contemplates a world which carries on existing even after he does, ‘One side will have to go’. It is in these moments that the narrator himself becomes ghostly, a spectral presence surveying a time and place after the fading of all human significance. One of the most sobering things literature teaches us is that we are utterly passive before time and the effects of its passing – disillusionment, diminishment and death. And yet, literature also demonstrates how, in the irrepressible instinct of words to always come back to us in the form of inscription and re-inscription, nothing is ever truly lost:
Nothing, in fact, actually dies: everything goes on existing, always. No power on earth can obliterate that which has once had being. Every act, every word, every form, very thought, falls into the universal ocean of things, and produces a circle on its surface that goes on enlarging beyond the furthest bounds of eternity.
A final word about Breckenridge’s references to Marxist thought will suffice here. In his book Specters of Marx, the philosopher Jacques Derrida engages with the ideological import of Marxism in terms of the ambiguous presence of specter, which functions both as an unacknowledged reference to the past and an uncanny call from the future to take up the task of responding to it by negotiating the vexed political history of Marxism. A ghost, in other words, comes from the past and gestures towards a future which is yet undecided because something remains to be settled with the past. Breckenridge’s title ‘And Then’, with its grammatical anticipation of what is to come after the present (‘and then …’), reveals the essence of narrative as a pointing towards by looking back at past narrative forms, histories and embodied memories. This haunting irresistibly propels storytelling forwards while engaging with themes of loss, mourning and nostalgic reminiscence. Breckenridge’s And Then is an engaging, if not entirely convincing, attempt to set up the novel as a commodious echoing chamber where stories resonate in their own time and out of their frame of reference.
Ian Tan is an educator based in Singapore, who teaches Literature at Raffles Institution. He is interested in the relationship between literature, philosophy, and film, and has written and spoken widely on these topics. His essays on film has been published in the journals Senses of Cinema, Offscreen, and Bright Lights Film Journal. He has written two student guidebooks on Literature texts and has won the Inspiring Teacher of English Award, a nationwide award given to outstanding teachers of Literature.