Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Stories in the Second Person

I’m in the middle of reading a short story collection. It’s a first collection by a young author and on the whole it seems a promising debut. There are some very strong stories in it. But there is one that has me scratching my head. It’s written in the second person and I can’t figure out why the author opted for this perspective in this story. It depicts an individual experience rich with specific detail. But rather than “she does this, she does that” or “I do this, I do that,” the author writes “you do this, you do that” and so on. What purpose does the use of the second person serve here?

It may be that despite the specificity of the experience depicted, the author is seeking to give it an air of universality. If so, I’m sceptical about the second person perspective as a device for doing so. It seems to me that an author can lay out a specific experience attributed to an individual character and in doing so convey the emotion beneath it in a way that makes the reader connect it with his or her own experience without the heavy-handed direction of addressing the character as “you.”

A related possibility is that the author is using the second person to heighten the sense of identification between reader and character. Making the main character “you” literally puts the reader in the shoes of that character. But here too I have my doubts. It seems to me that a first person story could accomplish this more effectively. A story with “I” at the centre situates the reader inside the character’s head and compels the reader to view the world through that character’s eyes. A story with “you” at the centre imposes that character’s experience on the reader from the outside. As a reader, this can make me quite belligerent. I find myself talking back to the story in childish fashion, meeting every “you did” with “no I didn’t.”

I’m not taking the position that there’s no place for the second person perspective in fiction. Indeed, one of the stories in my forthcoming collection is written in the second person. Why did I choose that perspective for that story? The “you” that the story is addressed to is not the reader but a character who features in it. It is essentially a letter from the narrator to an ex-lover. There the reader has the option of standing with the narrator who is telling the tale, or with the character to whom it is being told. Or, of course, the reader can stand outside both characters and relish the role of eavesdropper.

Another instance that I can think of where the second person can work well is in fiction in which the narrator or the author truly is addressing the reader in metafictional fashion.

Now here is the point when I start explicitly addressing this post to “you”! Do you have strong feelings one way or the other when you encounter the second person perspective in fiction? Can you offer up suggestions of novels or stories in which the second person perspective works well or of novels or stories in which you think the second person perspective fails? I’d like to grapple with this issue further and I think that a bit of research is required.


mary grimm said...

I think 2nd person works if it's well done--but isn't that always the way? Universality: no; no one wants to have universality crammed down her throat with youyouyou. But I do think it can generate some urgency that "I" doesn't--a narrator-reader urgency that if it's done well edges up to being pushy and intrusive, but doesn't go quite that far.
One think abt successful use of 2nd person is that if it works, you start to forget about it as you read.
All that said, I've never felt comfortable writing in it.

SFP said...

I generally read second person present tense stories as if the narrator were telling the story to herself. I think second person works well to get across the rawness of a story, one the narrator hasn't processed to the point that she can even tell it in the first person to other people yet. "You're an idiot," a character admonishes herself inside her head, not yet ready to admit to others, "I am an idiot."

litlove said...

You know, I absolutely hate the second person. I can't abide being told what to do by a narrative, or being chummily forced into intimacy with it. That being said, some canonical authors use it as a device. I believe Italo Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveller... uses it, if memory serves me right. And Marguerite Duras used it in La Maladie de la mort (didn't mind it so much then, perhaps because Duras is such an obviously style-driven author). But I'm not fond of it, and can only accept it sparingly, if at all.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting question! It seems that most people are quite uncomfortable with writing it or reading it... isn't that precisely what the writer wants in this story?

Anonymous said...

I saw an effective use of 2nd person in someone's as-yet-unpublished novel: the book begins with the narrator (as sfp says) telling the story to himself. The narrator at this stage seems alienated from almost everything in his day-to-day life, including himself and what he's made of his life. As he goes on his literal and metaphoric quest, he sorts a few things out. By the end of the novel, the narration has switched to first person.

melmoth said...

I agree with sfp. The second person can be used very effectively as internal monologue of a character. I often switch between "I" "you" and "he/she" in my fiction. In traditional narration it's actually the third person (singular or plural) that is the mark of omniscient narration, while the first person pronouns are marked by their extreme subjectivity. The second person pronoun "you" can be used as a distancing device to gain objectivity from one's subjectivity; as when the narrator is observing or commenting upon his behaviour or mental state to his or her self. In fact, the narration shifts in a wonderful way from being omniscient to being more of an observation or story one is telling to one's self.

Anonymous said...

A delayed remark to this post... Generally I am probably a fairly conservative reader when it comes to style and form, and hence I have never been much of a fan when it comes to 2nd person perspective. However if I should recommend one book where I do think this perspective succeds in creating a certain tension and urgency in the story, it s Gao Xinjiangs "The Bible of a lonely man" ( Disclaimer: I read the book in danish, and the title given here is my direct translation of the danish title. Furthermore, I am not sure about the spelling of his last name, but it is something like that anyway... hope you manage to find it ...)

David Hodges said...

I love 2nd person in poetry, where it's a common technique when combined with the imperative.

Claim your reward;
Submit your neck
To the ungrateful stroke
Of his reluctant sword,
That, starting back,
His eyes may look
Amazed at you,
Find what he wanted
Is faithful too
But disenchanted,
Your human love.

But if it's been sustained well over the length of a novel I can't think when.

The same goes for "direct address" in the theater. It served its purpose when the fourth wall needed breaking, but, oh, it can be tiresome to be talked at from the stage instead of shown something.