Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Second Person

Early, significantly early in your quest for skill and competence in the writing craft, you were struck by a comment made by a middle school teacher to the effect that use of the second person--the you point of view--was almost instinctive in verbal American English usage but was unwieldy and frowned upon in written format. Of all the middle school teachers you did not like, you did like this particular teacher. Your reaction and response to her statement was not accordingly a gesture of defiance or protest or a combination of the two but rather an experiment to see if there was merit in her observation. 

 The teacher's remarks were prologue to the terms and conditions of a writing assignment due the next day, an assignment of a five-hundred-word essay written in either first or third person. Your submission was in the second person. To demonstrate to this one of your middle school teachers that you did like, you also turned in a five-hundred word essay written in first person, a demonstration on your part that you could follow orders, could even do so in a non-contentious manner. 

 Well of course she loved the second person essay, was only mildly approving of the first person venture, and made a point of talking about taking risks. As a result, the second person point of view stayed with you, much like the two Chesterfield cigarettes you carried about in an empty Sucrets tin, taboo items kept close at hand for the right moment, as tools in a tool kit.

From time to time, you used the second person in what were otherwise third person narratives, pulp novels for the old Nick Carter series, or some of the other commercial ventures in which third person and multiple point of view approaches led the narrative way. It was not until you'd moved to Santa Barbara and drew a book by John Sanford for review that you became so happily caught up with second person as having potential for sustained narrative. 

 When you were ceremoniously invited to the stone carriage house on upper Buena Vista Road for strong muddy coffee and slabs of Sara Lee yellow cake served by JS, you were allowed to see his own pleasure in the second person. Indeed, the very book you'd reviewed was autobiographical, a fact that allowed you to see how second person might, if allowed to run unchecked, speak to the notion of the writer being too involved with self to take anything else into consideration. "It [second person] is not a distancing technique," he said. "Using it allows you to step into the world about you and capture meaningful parts of it to share with the reader. Listen," he said, "do you keep a journal?"

"Sure," you said.

"Then try this. Try one entry in second person. Then we'll talk some more."

You did.

Over the next round of coffee, considerably less murky because it had been brewed by Maggie Roberts, his screen writer wife, you confessed to admiring the second person but being led by it to write your journal entries in third person.

"Not bad, kiddo," JS said. "That serves the same purpose--writing about you as though someone else were doing the writing. I could see that working." Some of his previous and subsequent works were lapidary amalgams of second and third person, making you feel closer to them as you read them, in a comparative way, the way you felt when seeing your first play performed circular staged after a history of watching conventionally staged plays.

One of the more remarkable, sustained works of fiction rendered in second person is Jay Macinerney's Bright Lights, Big City, which opens thusly:

"You are not the type of guy who would be at a place like this at this
time in the morning. But here you are and you cannot say that the terrain
is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a
nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either
Heartbreak or Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip
into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then
again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack
of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already
turned on the imperceptible pivot where two a.m. changes to six a.m. You
know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to
concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous
damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there,
you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet
trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush."

Italo Calvino's remarkable If on a Winter's Night a Traveler uses the second person to introduce a convention-shattering sense of relationship between the author and reader, indeed between the reader and the reader's self:

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a
winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought.
Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the tv is always on in
the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!”
Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise. “I’m reading. I don’t
want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket;
speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if
you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone.
Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up
or lying flat. Flat on your back, on your side, on your stomach. In an easy
chair, on the sofa, in the rocker, the deck chair, on the hassock. In the
hammock, if you have a hammock. On top of your bed, of course, or in the
bed. You can even stand on your hands, head down, in the yoga position.
With the book upside down, naturally.

"Of course the ideal position for reading is something you can never
find. In the old days, they used to read standing up, at a lectern. People
were accustomed to standing on their feet, without moving. They rested
like that when they were tired of horseback riding. Nobody ever thought of
reading on horseback; and yet now, the idea of sitting in the saddle, the
book propped against the horse’s mane, or maybe tied to the horse’s ear
with a special harness, seems attractive…"

Nor should we forget the mind-boggling icon from our own past (note how easy it was to slip into the we point of view):

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on
the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is as far as he knows the
only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is
another way if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.
And then he feels that perhaps there isn’t. Anyhow, here he is at the
bottom and ready to be introduced to you. Winnie the Pooh.
When I first heard his name, I said, just as you are going to say, “But
I thought he was a boy?”
“So did I,” said Christopher Robin.
“Then you can’t call him Winnie?”
“I don’t.”
“But you said—“
“He’s Winnie-ther-Pooh. Don’t you know what ther means?”
“Ah, yes; now I do,” I said quickly, and I hope you do, too, because it
is all the explanation you’re going to get.

You already know about Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas by Tom Robbins and so you don't have to quote from that, tempting as it might be.

J.S. Bach wrote a treatise (in third person, by the way) discussing the emotional impact transmitted to a particular musical composition as a result of the key in which it was written. Inspired by that, you have thought long and seriously, briefly and humorously about the person in which a story or novel or essay or biography or even a recipe is written. 

 Although you have never met the man James Wood, it is as though you had, having read through his recent How Fiction Works. Said book would better be titled How Fiction Works for Me. It is as though Norman Mailer had approached fiction instead of himself (see Advertisements for Myself). You are particularly tuned to Woods as you write this because among other things, Woods believes the I or first person narrator is the most reliable of all which has prompted you to believe that Ishmael would have been just as trustworthy and believable in the third person. You of course never knew Melville, but you feel safe in assuming he was sold entirely on the first person because of the first sentence. When you get a gift such as that, you take it and run.


Anonymous said...

The use of second person never means the same thing twice. In your posts, it clearly refers to the first person, as it does in Pam Houston's story How To Talk To A Hunter and Lorrie Moore stories. But in Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night..." he is clearly instructing the you of the reader to imagine himself in that situation, he is clearly the hypnotist inducing a hypnotic trance in the exact same way a hypnotist would do it. This is a totally different use of you that all the others, except perhaps Winnie The Pooh which is instructing the child to play-pretend to be Pooh. I never imagine myself Shelly reading Shelly's second person notes, and I don't believe you intend that.

Anonymous said...

I keep coming across references to James Woods and I can't decide if how fiction works for him would me figure out how it works for me or simply unravel everything.

Shelly, however, gives me things to think about (not worry over).

lowenkopf said...

Squirrel, your points noted,for this is the purpose of conversations such as these, but there are times when indeed my second person notes here start out for me, the unreliable narrator trying to essay his way into reality.

Marta, you seem to me to have reached the point where you can look at those such as Wood, take in what seems useful, them move on in your own direction without beig unraveled.

Matt said...

Interesting - as I read your entry, I was thinking "I wonder if he read the James Wood book?", which was just reviewed in yesterday's New York Times. In particular, I was caught by his statement (perhaps paraphrased by the reviewer or my memory) that third-person narrative, contrary to what one might think, tends to be more opinionated in the long-run, and first-person tends to be more objective.

In the end, it's academic of course. Thanks for showcasing second-person narrative; a very intriguing "third way".


lowenkopf said...

Hey, Matt, I do think second person gets unnecessarily swept under the rug as unwieldy when in fact, it can be downright engaging.

Matt said...

For me, in a very basic way, it is the repetition of a voice speaking the word "you" to the reader (as opposed to pronouns like "I" or "she" which seem foreign by comparison). You can't get much more direct than that.