The Second Person Study, Part 15: “You” by Joyce Carol Oates

YOU! Who?

This story does some fascinating things with second person; Monika Fludernik analyzes it in the third part of her treatise “Second Person Fiction: Narrative You as addressee and/or protagonist.”

One of the coolest points she makes is that the story “illustrates the excellent suitability of second person fiction for the expression and description of intimacy.” It is a superb way of telling this story of mother and daughter, since it is capable of increasing the intimacy between reader and narrator (by “even if only initially, seeming to involve the actual reader in her role as a potential addressee”) and of increasing and decreasing the intimacy between narrator and protagonist:

Since address combines a distancing factor (foregrounding the non-identity of the I and You) with the presupposition of an acquaintance with the person thus addressed, it proves to be a fictional mode adaptable to detailing the jig-saw structure of the mother-daughter relationship. As feminist studies have revealed in detail, that relation alternates between dominant intimacy and the continual struggle on the daughter’s part for liberation from the boundedness of that very intimacy.

I personally feel there is also a great deal of accusatory tone here, that teen-age scorn done with finesse, and this is possible without spelling it out by use of second person, as the daughter relates what mother is doing while daughter is trying to find her lost sister. It is quite remarkable.

The story starts with one “you” protagonist: “You are leaving the airplane…. You hate mornings – anger rises in you, bubbling like something sour in your throat – but you grin into the morning because someone is approaching you, shouting a magic word. Your name.” Wow, the egotism! We learn “You” is Madeline Randall, B-list actress, met at the airport by her agent and a friend who fetch her luggage and discuss the part she is about to film: “But that part is exactly you,” her agent tells her. ” The new you. It could have been written exactly for you!” At the motel (“the odor of chlorine and bug spray” – this is not the Beverly Hills Hotel) someone asks if she is Madeline Randall. Her identity is the focus of so much of the opening, and we keep reading along, learning who “you” is without ever getting a clue of who this person is.

The scene continues to play. “You” works on the part, goes to dinner, and threatens to go back to New York – “It’s my daughter….there’s trouble with my daughter.”

It strikes you that this is an important scene, an emotional scene. People are watching you anxiously. You might be in a play. Not one of those crappy television plays, like the kind you have flown out here to film (you’ll do five tapes and make thousands of dollars, thousands!) but a real play, like Chekhov, like… like Chekhov, where people do cry out at each other and hold up their shaking hands, pleading.

Yes, this is a scene in an important life, your own.

But they need you to be you, so you prove your worth with pushups and get ready for dinner. And here, it’s casually dropped in, the first “I” – four pages into the story! There is an “I” in this story! It is not a reflector narrator at all, it is the “homocommunicative address mode” Monika has outlined, the “person-and-a-half” as I call it. Aha! This changes the narrative – four pages into the story!
We do not know who this “I” is yet. We return to “You” for a paragraph and learn “You” “like to set traps but don’t like to clean up after them. As a matter of fact, you never clean up after anything!”

And then in the next paragraph, nearly a page after the first ‘I” is dropped, we find out who that is:

Now they are herding you to the elevator and now I am walking through the rooms of our apartment in New York, my head pounding – now they are herding you out to a taxi , fussing over you, admiring you, and now I am dialing the telephone again.

This juxtaposes “You” – in the lap of luxury – with “I“, in distress, though we do not yet know the nature of that distress. But the scorn comes through loud and clear. Yes, while I am here taking care of what must be taken care of – cleaning up – you are off partying! This reversal of parent and child roles (it is usually the child who is having fun while the parent takes care of things) adds to the effect, I think! It is quite wonderful!

After a page of this, we learn more of what is actually happening right now – twin sister/daughter Miranda is missing. We do not know what the urgency of this is. But we realize it is more than just a girl who forgot to tell anyone she had a sleepover with a friend.

We then learn about the night before; we get more of an idea what is actually happening here when “You” tells Miranda: “I have renounced that man! I have discarded him! If you persist in seeing him I will discard you! If you persist in refusing to see the doctor I am finished, finished, finished with you!”

At this point, I thought I could not be getting it right. I thought, Miranda is pregnant by a man Mom-Madeline used to date. But, wait, would not Madeline be outraged at the man, not at Miranda? Would she not have stayed in New York? Is that not what anyone would do in that crazy situation? So I must be wrong… but I was not wrong. I will not go into the rest of the story, only to say this wonderful use of second person continues right up until the last scene, the last paragraph, the last sentence.

I think the power of this story comes from that “what the hell” feeling, the slow reveal of information that includes a really shocking situation (or am I too easily shocked?) along with the juxtaposition of “You” and “I” as mentioned above – what mother and daughter/sister are doing about the girl who goes missing after this argument over this truly abhorrent mess. And I think the use of second person is the perfect way of telling this story. And of course the title – perfect! The narcissism of Madeline, her constant performing, the accusatory “YOU!” It sums it all up in three letters.

However… I will tread into a region that I still do not understand, and that I am not sure I need to understand right now to appreciate second person. We get everything through the POV of Marion. Is Marion reliable? There is no reason to think otherwise, but even a reliable, reasonable daughter can exaggerate and blow Mom out of all proportion (who has not said, or heard, “I hate you” or “I never want to see you again”?). Was Madeline truly thinking so egocentrically? Did she really drop the “trouble with my daughter” angle as soon as it failed to yield drama, as depicted? Still, the conversation (“finished!”) was apparently real. I am inclined to believe Marion. But is the story more about Marion, about her view of Madeline, than it is about Madeline? Madeline is clearly the villain, but is that because Madeline is the villain, or because Marion sees her as the villain? What is real, and what is Marion? If I tell you a story about how my great-grandfather beat me, then you discover it was all something I made up (which would have to be the case, since all my great-grandfathers died before I was born), would that be a story about my great-grandfather, or a story about me?

As part of her view of the story as “a superb example of what one may consider to be the postmodernist tendency to subvert the realistic, representational mode,” (sheesh, do they not teach tight prose in Austria?) Monika says:

…the story in fact allows one to observe the naturallistically and narratologically ‘impossible’ combination of voyeuristic omniscience (seeing into and knowing the minds both of the actress/mother Madeline and that of the fictional “I“, the daughter Marion) with no realistically recuperable teller or reflector agent who might view events unfold….important almost epistemological questions remain unanswered. Are we getting Marion’s view of her mother’s psyche, or a ‘real’ figural mode presentation of it?

This leap into pure narratology and discourse analysis is beyond me, and I would love to study it further. Some day, I may! You may find a “Narratology for Dummies” section here! But for now, I will just appreciate that there is the impossibility that Marion can factually relate what Madeline is doing, and that is part of the intriguing magic of this story. It is like thinking about infinity plus one!

I am shocked at how good this story is – and very surprised, and perplexed, that I have not run into any mention of this story in the course of my study until now! Monika, I forgive you for all your insane nomenclature and twisted syntax, for you led me here! It is extraordinary, not only as a story but as a use of second person – two modes of second person! – to add to the story of the relationship! This should be at the top of every second-person-story list! And I am not even a big Joyce Carol Oates fan – but this story could have made me one, if some one had suggested I read it instead of shoving “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” down my throat over and over again!

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5 responses to “The Second Person Study, Part 15: “You” by Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Ok, so I am a little nervous posting this note on your blog…but I couldn’t find your email. I have really enjoyed following you blog (2nd person study in particular) and I thought I would share (some might call it promote) a link with my 2nd person story that was recently published by FictionFix. (http://fictionfix.net/issues.html issue 10). I thought you might be interested in checking it out. Hopefully I’m not too presumptuous. Have a great evening.

    • Hello again, Jim! Do not be nervous! I am delighted to hear you have enjoyed this Study and I am extra-delighted you have referred me to one of your stories! I will check it out, thank you, it is not presumptuous it is wonderful! And I will email you when I have read it and then you will have my email (and I must update my profile to include my email, for that matter!)

  2. Pingback: Google Image Search Results for “Second Person” | Laura Maylene Walter

  3. Pingback: Pushcart 2013: Joyce Carol Oates, “Mudgirl Saved by the King of Crows. April 1965.” From Boulevard, Spring 2011 | A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: Joyce Carol Oates: “Lovely, Dark, Deep” from Harper’s, November 2013 | A Just Recompense

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