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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Curfew

There's a reason why few stories—and even fewer novels—are written using the second person point of view. It tires readers out. It says to them, in effect: here, you step into the protagonist's shoes; you play the role; you do what he/she does. Depending on who the character is, and what befalls them, readers may or may not want to play along. Even assuming that they're game, they may not be willing to play for hundreds of pages.

Which isn't to say that second person doesn't have its place. It's been used to great effect, more often in short stories, most notoriously by Loorie Moore in what may still be her most famous collection, Self-Help, wherein many stories take the form of how-to guides, to wit (from "How to Be a Writer"):
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 doughnut. She'll say: 'How about emptying the dishwasher?'.
Note how easily the second person viewpoint lends itself to comedy—far more easily an willingly than it lends itself to tragedy, since though we balk at being forced to endure, say, a heroin addict's withdrawal symptoms or gang rape, we don't seem to mind being the butt of a joke or a buffoon.

At any rate, we don't mind for short intervals—say, the length of a short story. That said, the second person technique has proven extremely successful with longer forms—or anyway with one longer form, namely Jay McInerney's 1984 love letter to Yuppiedom, Bright Lights, Big City, which opens:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of 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 the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian marching powder.
In fact throughout the course of McInerney's book "you" go on to do a lot more Bolivian marching powder. Here, too, the overall effect is comic—though by the book's end the comedy has turned to pathos and arguably to self-pity (but then the self being pitied is, well, you).

Owing to the tortured metaphysical logic of second person narrations, we have, in a sense, ourselves to blame for whatever weaknesses endow their characters. We bear their burdens and their faults—and, to some extent at least, the faults of their authors. Call it guilt by association.

Then again many readers will cross their arms and say, "As a matter of fact, no, I am not in a nightclub talking to a girl with a bald head." And that will be that. In using the second person you throw a gauntlet to the reader. Supposing the reader doesn't pick it up?

In the given example "you" (a teenage boy) wait on the balcony of your parents' home to be picked-up by some friends for your "first-ever party." Just thinking of it "your heart beats fast," for you know it's not just a party that awaits you at the far end of that ride: it's a right of passage, an initiation. There will be "beer and liquor and girls." You almost can't believe it. It even seems to you, as you stand there waiting, that the likelihood of your actually achieving this milestone is about as great as that of "a snowstorm in San Antonio."

All this is well done; the author does indeed put us (or rather forces us into, for the second person is never quite voluntary) the psyche of an adolescent boy, a psyche beside itself with nervous erotic energy and anticipation. The details are convincingly precise, down to the grackles whose cries make a laugh track of the night—fittingly, for here, too, though there's drama, it's underscored by comedy. It makes for a strong opening to a story whose theme is the heady anxiety of adolescence—a story I, for one, wouldn't mind reading. Or playing the lead in.

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