Donald Breckenridge’s latest novella, And Then, begins with a brief section that describes, in detail, the plot of Jean Rouch’s film Gare du Nord. It’s a gesture that sets the mood and the tone of the book, but it does more than that. Rouch’s short film splits into two parts: the first is about a domestic struggle between a fairly ordinary couple; the second about an extraordinary interaction between the wife and a man who commits suicide after she declines to run away with him. Breckenridge too has an interest in crosscutting between banal and extraordinary situations. He is interested in the ways different lives intersect with one another and briefly throw off sparks before moving on.
But there are profound differences as well. Where Rouch’s film remains tightly focused on three characters, Breckenridge offers a collage of several stories that extends beyond its three main characters. There’s Suzanne, who, with her boss, robs the store she works at, then leaves with half the money for New York, has a love affair with a photographer, gets involved with drugs, and eventually disappears. There’s Tom, a student who is apartment-sitting for a female professor he has a crush on. There’s also a first-person narrator — Breckenridge himself, according to Douglas Glover’s introduction — who painfully recounts the story of his father’s long decline into humiliation and death.
These fragmentary narratives interweave with one another irregularly, competing for prominence. Though Breckenridge never insists on it, we increasingly get the feeling that the narratives may overlap and connect across time and in a way the characters themselves — with the possible exception of the first-person narrator — can’t see: Tom discovers, among the professor’s belongings, information that makes his crush seem hopeless and photographs of a woman who might well be Suzanne; Suzanne, or someone very much like her, reappears as a ghost in one of the other two stories.
Breckenridge is carefully balanced throughout. A minimalist, he never reveals too much, and makes us work to connect what he does give us. We see snatches of other narratives in addition to those described above: a soldier who dies in Vietnam; brief glimpses of people on the street, seen perhaps through a window. The mood can shift from section to section, though there is a sense of longing that permeates the book as a whole. The memoir of the father is brutally honest and painful in a way that those who have lost a close relative to protracted mortality can understand.
The overall effect of the interwoven and crosscut narratives is disorienting — more of something half-glimpsed than fully seen. This is augmented by Breckenridge’s unusual and abrupt shifting between description and dialogue:
She removed a bible tract from her purse, “Really fucking weird,” presented it to him, “someone gave me this,” then recalled the middle-aged preacher with the greasy comb-over sweating profusely in a purple polyester suit, “and the train took forever,” who demanded Suzanne accept God’s salvation…
Descriptions are interrupted and then, when continued, often interrupt the dialogue that interrupted them in the first place. You find yourself not moving forward but doubling back, reevaluating what you thought you knew. This is also true of the book as a whole, with each story circling back before another interrupts it, recalling earlier events moments later.
It’s the kind of strategy that could increasingly frustrate readers the longer a book goes, but Breckenridge takes advantage of the strengths of the novella: short enough to be read in a single sitting, And Then couples the tautness and control of a short story with the philosophical expansiveness of a novel. The resonances remain fresh and clear, the connections subtle but not so oblique as to be enigmatic. Satisfying both on the level of story (or, rather stories) and style, And Then is a thoughtful meditation on the residue that remains: the ghosts that people our lives, the dead we cannot forget.