The Second Person Study, Part 1: “Boys” by Rick Moody

“You are Zin” “No, you are Zin!”

Hello, I am Zin! I have undertaken a new project: the Second Person Study!

Few stories are written in second person (the “you” voice) except by students. Students love it! Oh, it is different! It is odd! And teachers groan when they see “you” on the page! Editors too. I think because it is considered a gimmick. And it is hard to get it to work right!

Funny thing is, I have never read a bad second-person story (at least not one that was published). Off the top of my head, I came up with “How to Leave Hialeah” by Jennine Capo Crucet, “Leopard” by Wells Tower (which was discussed as part of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned), “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid, and “How You Know You’re an Adult” by Steve Almond. I think maybe they are carefully culled by gatekeepers so that only those that are extraordinary get through! Though I am not sure “Hialeah” is extraordinary, to be honest, but it is good, and it works!

I am very lucky to have access to some very smart and well-read people on Zoetrope, so we talked about this for a while. Sequoia Nagamatsu, an MFA candidate who is creating a Creative Writing syllabus, gave me a reading list! How wonderful! I will be studying Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, a story collection written mostly in second person; “Land of Pain” by Stacey Richter; “Orientation” by Daniel Orozco; “The Swim Team” by Miranda July; “Once in a Lifetime” by Jhumpa Lahiri (and maybe the rest of the trio in Unaccustomed Earth; “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” by Joe Meno; and “We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek which was given as an example of a dramatic monologue type of second person story. [addendum: and more; the Second Person Study now has twenty-one posts and it grows when I find another really interesting second-person story!]

I was initially interested in how some “you” stories are of the “instruction manual” type (like “Hialeah”) and some are of the more “you know how it goes, you do this and go here and this happens and so you say this…” more like the “Adult” story. And some, like “Girl” get downright commanding! Sequoia suggested the degree of involvement, the relationship, between narrator and “you” is an important parameter. In a story like “Girl” the narrator is the mother, and is very involved and that is why she is yelling at the girl to do this do that! In something like “Hialeah” the narrator is instructing the reader, and there is not as close a bond. I want to keep this in mind as I read these stories!

I am starting my second person study with “Boys” by Rick Moody (a very short story), which is not in second person! What? What are you doing, you silly fool? Well, it was accidentally added to the reading list and then debated because there are a couple of “yous” in there, and I found it very interesting that they were there, when they did not have to be. So I thought I would include it any way. Given that Rick Moody wrote this and it is so short, I do not think he used “one” and “you” by accident or mistake! This narration is a slippery thing, and it changes during the story! I think it is wonderful! I wonder if I would have noticed it if I had not been looking for examples of second person when I read this story.

So here are the three places in the story that struck me as important to my Second Person Study:

On a Sunday, in May, a day one might nearly describe as perfect… So he uses “one”, nebulous and non-specific, kind of formal, the narrator describing the day, not addressing or quoting anyone, is used here, not “you” – if “you” were used, it would be the narrator, not the boys, addressing the reader. But he does not do this!

“One believing that to change the system you need to work inside it…” But here he does use “you” which is one boy speaking to the other? Because this is more of a reported quote than a narration?

Boys don’t enter the house at all, except as ghostly afterimages of younger selves, fleeting images of sneakers dashing up a staircase; soggy towels on the floor of the bathroom; blue jeans coiled like asps in the basin of the washing machine; boys as an absence of boys; blissful at first, you put a thing down on a spot, put this book down, come back later, it’s still there; you buy a box of cookies, eat three, later three are missing. Nevertheless, when boys next enter the house, which they ultimately must do, it’s a relief, even if it’s only in preparation for weddings of acquaintances… Now this is the really cool one – who is the narrator? And who is “you”? I think there is some wistfulness in this, how yes, it is nice you have these advantages but at the same time, it is sad, this sign that the boys are gone, so I think it is the mother, since the father, well, you will have to read the story! I also think it is cool “put this book down” how it is self-referential. I love it when stories do this so smoothly! It makes it much more immediate and “now” than the initial sentences. I think this is the musing of the mother after the climactic event of the story, and is much more intimate and close to her than the “one” at the beginning! So we go from “one” which is formal and vague to one boy calling the other “you” which is more personal to the mother calling herself “you” , it evolves, to get closer to the heart.

You know how (second person! But I am asking a question) every once in a while someone will say, what author would you like to have dinner with and what would you talk about? I think I would like to ask Rick Moody exactly what he was doing here, and even more important, how he did it – if he just scratched out a draft and then came back and thought, I think I will sneak this in here, and fine-tuned it until it was this way, or if he hatched it in his head and said, I will do this progression. Or, if he was thinking something entirely different (which is not unlikely at all!).

8 responses to “The Second Person Study, Part 1: “Boys” by Rick Moody

  1. Thank you for your 2nd person study. I love 2nd person and as a teacher I promote it. If only because so many talk students out of doing it. Anyway, if your interested you might want to read “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis. This is (in my opinion) a brilliant 2nd person narrative, until in the last paragraph where it switches to 3rd person. If I could have that dinner and discussion…it would be with Lewis and the discussion would be about that last part. Anyway, I look forward to reading part two.

  2. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 7: “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis « A Just Recompense

  3. Hi! I thought about why I read “Boys” as second person. It’s because to me, I believe that his message is actually saying: “boys will do this, expect ____ from boys, boys will terrorize their sister, boys will ____” If it is a report, it can be seen as third person, unless the author’s message really is that the story exemplifies so many typical boys stories (a whole bell curve of statistics) then I think the message is second person, you. Very tough to analyze these stories because I have 3 boys and have read so many stats over the years. In literature sometimes I think we should just be able to state our perspective and back it up with our evidence and be considered correct. Thanks for your posting/blog.

    • Hi Niccole – Zin, who wrote this post, isn’t here any more, but maybe I can fill in.

      I think you’ve worked your way around very well, considering different aspects.

      I think of “Boys” as being, as you say, a report – a narrative, a record of what happened. That would mean I consider it third person, the same as a story such as “John did this, then he did that.” The protagonist is referred to in the third person.

      In second person, it’s a little trickier, which is why Zin did such a lot of posts on the Second Person Study. It seems there are two basic types of second person: the first, call it an instruction manual, which is I think what you were referring to when you wrote of a doctor telling you what to do. An instruction manual is something like “Put the key in the lock. Turn the key. Open the door and go into the house. Look around. When you see …” etc etc. It’s addressed to someone who will read the instructions, very much like the instruction manual that might come with your coffee maker (“Clean with damp cloth… place on a level surface…”). Except the fictional third person instruction manual conveys a story, usually the experience of someone who’s been there before and is now telling others how to follow in her footsteps – or not.

      Then there’s the more typical second person, with “you” explicit. “You get up in the morning and look in the mirror. You wonder when your hair got so long, so you decide to get it cut…” It’s an odd form, because the protagonist is actually the writer, not the reader. This is a lot of what Zin covered in the Study, how second person brings the writer and reader closer, sometimes, and yet sometimes holds them apart.

      In “Girl” I thought it was third person, because the mom is reciting instructions; the brilliance of the piece, to me, is that the reader is in the position of the girl, so is experiencing the mother’s comments as the girl experiences them. In that, the mother is an agent, but the girl, who never appears in the story, is the protagonist. It’s very clever.

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