Thursday, April 23, 2009

POV, Part VI: Second-Person

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Hitherto you have lain perfectly still, because the slightest motion would dissipate the fragments of your slumber. Now, being irrevocably awake, you peep through the half drawn window curtain, and observe that the glass is ornamented with fanciful devices in frost work, and that each pane presents something like a frozen dream...
aaaaaaaaa--Nathaniel Hawthorne
aaaaaaaaaa The Haunted Mind, 1837

Second-person narration may seem oh-so-moderne, but it's been around for a while. It's certainly more common than first-person plural, and I'm told that after the success of Jay McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City in the mid-80s, writing classes were temporarily awash in second-person narratives. Tom Robbins, John Updike,William Faulkner, and many others have written in the second person, but second-person is more often found in short stories or individual chapters than as the sole POV for entire novels.

Most often the second person is no more than a swapping of "you" for "I". In McInerny's novel (which is in second-person present-tense--the sort of thing considered ultra-hep in the MFA programs of the Reagan era), there is no doubt that the narrator is telling you his own story. In Bright Lights, Big City, the technique works well, because the narrator is attempting not to own his feelings or take responsibility for his actions. It gives us only a distant connection with the narrator, and imparts a chilly feeling to the whole book. (I think the novel works brilliantly, but, as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, " one ever wished it were longer.")

One of the weasely features of the second-person POV is that the "you" can be read literally as "you" (the person I'm addressing), "I" (the narrator), or "one" (a universal, or at least something common to a considerable group). It can be hard to nail down, and "you" often creeps into conversational first-person narratives. It was especially popular in the glory days of noir and pulp, as in, She was the kind of dame that could make you do just about anything. That probably means "she could make me do anything," but it lifts responsibility from the narrator by also urging us to believe "she could make anybody do anything." The narrative "you" is a lot like the narrative "we" in that it might include or exclude us, the readers.

One of my favorite short-story writers, Lorrie Moore, often uses second-person, and sometimes uses it in a rather unusual form, with an imperative, instructional style. One of her funniest stories, "How to Become a Writer" (from her collection Self-Help) opens like this:

First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age -- say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut. She'll say: "How about emptying the dishwasher?" Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

The entire story is narrated exactly this way, in a rather odd tense, immediate but also retrospective. This narrator needs massive amounts of distance from the character (herself, of course) whose career she is narrating, and it is the distance that allows it to be so funny; would that we could see ourselves so objectively. (Moore has another similarly instructive story in the same book, "How to be an Other Woman," as well as several others also in second-person.)

If distance or plausible deniability are what you need, second-person narration is a good place to go. Second-person can be heartbreaking, but it's heartbreaking in an uninvolved, implied fashion, filled with irony. Strong emotion, strongly expressed, is difficult in second-person, because the form reads either as insincere or as objective and detached. When second-person achieves a powerful emotional impact, it is more by what remains unsaid, the notes that remain unplayed.

I think there are a number of things that can be learned about POV by playing with second-person. A good challenge would be to write a few pages where there was no question that every "you" refers to the narrator, and then write a few more where it isn't clear whether the narrator is speaking of himself or a group of people. (If you really want to break down the fourth wall, as they say in theatre, extend that last one to include the implication that the narrator is addressing the specific reader, the one holding the book.)

The "unreliable narrator" is often described as a concept that is only valid in first-person, as opposed to third-person, narrative. This isn't strictly accurate, but it's accurate enough for most purposes; if the narrator of a third-person novel tells us, as Orwell does in the opening of 1984, that the clocks are striking thirteen, we are supposed to be surprised at this fact, but we aren't supposed to question if the narrator is telling the truth.

Second-person narrators can be just as unreliable as first-person narrators. In fact, second-person narrators might be thought of as highly subjective first-person narrators trying to masquerade as objective third-person narrators. That seems suspicious all by itself, doesn't it?

In English, "you" is far less precise and nuanced than in many languages. We don't distinguish between a formal you and an intimate you; we don't even distiguish between you singular and you plural (except, of course, in parts of New York and New Jersey, where youse or youse guys is plural, and in the South, where you is singular and y'all is plural). When a narrator elects to say "you," we aren't sure if their meaning is "I," "one," you specifically, you as a group, you but not I--and there is not always certainty that the word is being used in the same sense from sentence to sentence. If it's imprecision you seek, if you want obfuscation, wiggle room, and loopholes in contracts, look no further. Second person is the shyster defence attorney of narrative form.

In my graph back in the second post of this interminable series, I showed second-person as having the narrowest range of psychic distances of any POV. It is the fuzziness of the POV that makes this true. The distancing effect keeps second-person from true intimacy, but its vagueness also prevents it from rising very high toward omniscience. The problem isn't that universal pronouncements can't be made in second person--in fact, it's the easiest form in which to make sweeping generalization. The difficulty is that the very viewpoint makes any generalizations slightly untrustworthy.

That said, though second-person POV has a narrow range of use, it is sometimes the perfect way to tell a story.

Usually a rather short story.

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Janet said...

I agree with you that these unusual forms tend to work better in short pieces. Like strong flavours, we can tire of them when there's too much.

I think most regions have some kind of informal plural you; it's a linguistic gap that begs to be filled. In Canada, our most common form is "you guys", in no way restricted to males.

Jen said...

...And in the South, where you is singular and y'all is plural...

Interesting. Round these parts, y'all is singular and all y'all is plural. Y'all know what I'm sayin'? I'm just sayin'.

BTW: Great short story by Ramsey Campbell, "Heading Home," is in second person. I read it when I was about 13 and it scared the sheep outta me. Y'all have been warned.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Janet--

"You guys" has considerable currency in Southern California surfer-dude talk, as well as Valley Girl Speak. It remains ambiguous, though, as 'guys' can mean 'people' or still mean 'males.'

But I can't say I've ever seen it as a narrative form...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Saying "y'all" as a singular is the sort of thing most Southerners make fun of Northerners for doing. But Texas has always been contrary--and, as our most recent President showed, sometimes unable to apply the languange in anything more than an approximate way.

On the other hand, my grandfather hailed from Texarkana, and I can't recall him ever saying "y'all" in any form whatsoever.

"Y'all have been warned."

Ya'll us, or y'all me?

Somehow we didn't get around to usns and yourns...

Jen said...

Y'all you, or all y'all, or whoever's readin' the story.

Just incidentally, today is Talk Like A Redneck Day. Here, hold mah beer.

David Isaak said...

Reckon I talk that way one purt near ever day anyhoo, little lady.