The Second Person Study, Part 16: Three Stories from Wild Life by Kathy Fish

Raffael, "Child with Bird"

Hello, I am Zin! Matter Press (obsessed with compression) recently published this book as their first collection of flash, and it is wonderful! Out of more than 30 terrific flashes, four are second person – and I am very excited about them, they are wonderful examples of what I have been studying! I will cover three of them here:

The Cartoonist originally published in elimae, December 2007
The story begins with observation, which becomes more and more creative: from the rather ordinary “Your father’s bald head bent over his food” to “Your mother, looking wearing, bags – actual pieces of luggage – under her eyes, parked on her cheekbones.” This gives the sense that the “you” is actually seeing pieces of luggage under her eyes! Then, in the first complete sentences of the story, action: the bird flies in, Mom reacts. Then the first imperative: “Furrow her brow” and I think this is the first indication of the cartoonist living inside the head of the “you“. The story returns to creative observation: “Your father’s words: sit down you lunatic in a bubble over the steamed peas” – again, it feels like this is what the “you is seeing! And the big brother, ominous, is introduced. The piece closes with another imperative: “Draw him smaller than everything else.”

What is really amazing about this: in the original version at elimae, the imperatives were not there! The last line was “Smaller than everything and everyone else” and the “Furrow her brow” line was skipped entirely! Originally, it was observation only. The rewritten lines create a character – the cartoonist inside the head of the “you” directing! A wonderful tweak!

On the story level, this is Thurber gone dark: a miserable family and the “you” has figured out how to cope with it. Mom is tired, Dad is aloof, eating, yelling, calling Mom a lunatic! The whole family just speaks to get food! Baby bro, banging a spoon, ignored. Big bro is threatening – that is what the description “slumped” and “narrowed eyes” and “in the shadows” conveys to me – so the cartoonist tells the ‘you” to draw him smaller than anyone else – to minimize the danger? To minimize his existence in the family? Or both? The action – the bird – is secondary to the family setting and the way the “you” (who could be male or female, and pretty much any young age) is directed by the cartoonist in his/her head – an extension of him/herself! And the bird is a crow, not a sparrow or a pigeon or a jay, but a symbol of death!

I adore this story! I adore the added imperatives, and the progression of observation!

Summer Job originally published in Spork, issue 6.1
This is the country version of “Orientation” – the new employee is a farm hand, detasseling corn! She is told who to watch out for and what not to do, in an imperative voice, with perhaps more danger! I am also reminded of what Monika Fludernik said about dramatic monologue telling a story without the narrator actually telling the story.

Sweep originally published in Spork, issue 6.1
Another flash I adore! It is in the form of self-address, which I have not encountered yet in this study! It seems like another imperative, like “Summer Job” above, but it quickly becomes evident the protagonist is giving the commands to herself. While it is self-address, but like a dramatic monologue, it tells a story without telling a story! At first, I thought she was sweeping to keep herself from dwelling on a romance that ended, or never began, an unrequited yearning that she is talking herself out of, with the last line showing a truly sad self-loathing! She is using the creation of physical pain to distract from emotional pain, doing a kind of grounding exercise (using all the senses to stay in the here-and-now). Then I realized – feathers – parakeet – why are the feathers on the porch? Feathers are not like leaves, they do not just appear on porches in sufficient quantity to sweep! Did the man leave and take his parakeet with him, trailing feathers from the cage? Or… did she massacre the parakeet… and the man? And the last line is a justification? I am not sure!

This would not be anywhere near as effective in first or third person! And again, there was a change from the original published version: “That man” of the last sentence became “The man.” I am not sure of the significance of this, but “that man” makes him seem more distant, almost an abstraction (“what am I going to do with that man?”), while “the man” could be inside with his parakeet, rotting away….

3 responses to “The Second Person Study, Part 16: Three Stories from Wild Life by Kathy Fish

  1. (the previous post came out messed up, trying again)

    Thank you so much, Zin, for this close reading of these stories. And also, for comparing the stories to earlier, published versions. I never stop tinkering with my stories and especially, when putting together a collection, I want each story to sing as much as possible.

    I like what you have to say about “The Cartoonist.” Your comments speak directly to why I revised the story so much. I really did want a sense of the character of the narrator. I felt that I was making the title do perhaps too much work, in the version which ran in elimae. I thought, here, the imperative would work perfectly towards my purpose. To me, it says so much about a character when you show what they are looking at and focussing on. There are many things this girl could be looking at in this small scene, but she notices these things: the birthmark on her father’s forehead, the smile on the baby brother’s face, the mother’s harried response to the crow. And also, how she chooses to convey the scene in her drawing (much like how a writer choose to convey things in prose): the exclamation marks around the mother’s head, for example. The evil triangle shaped eyes the cartoonist gives the crow. But most importantly, how she conveys the brother. I wanted that to carry a lot of emotional weight. I hope I was successful. Looking at the story now, again, I see things I might change, still. But I’m happy with how it is in the book.

    For me, 2nd person is a means of rendering the highly specific into the universal. Also, so much of verbal storytelling is done in the 2nd person isn’t it? I personally do not find it as gimmicky or as contrived as editors often do. But I think it has to be done well and 2nd person is tricky to do well. I think it is often used as a crutch to make a boring story sound more interesting than it is. That’s where editors, who see so much of it in slush piles (and I know, having done a lot of reading for journals in the past), develop a sort of loathing for it which is quite apt.

    I have not yet clicked on your link for the story “Orientation” so I don’t know how it compares to my story “Summer Job.” I’ve also not clicked on the link for the discussion of dramatic monologue for telling a story, but I am eager to read both of those! And that is exactly what I’m doing with my story, using the foreman’s instructions to tell a story that lives in the subtext and the details. I thought also, his particular voice was important to the storytelling. I’m not sure if this qualifies as 2nd person narration per se, but it does have that imperative voice. This story was a lot of fun to write.

    Your analysis of “Sweep” is excellent. I’m so glad you loved it. You are spot on about the imperative here coming from within the narrator herself. I personally have an inner voice that’s rather nasty and critical of me, so that’s the sort of voice I put in this girl’s head. I love what you have to say about the feathers, too. I don’t think I was ever thinking logically about the meaning of a pile of feathers on a porch, it was more an image that I liked that I thought carried meaning and I just ran with it.

    Thanks very much for inviting me here to discuss these stories, Zin. I am very grateful for your close read of Wild Life, and I’m so glad you enjoyed the book.

    • Hello, Kathy, thank you so much for coming by to comment! It is very exciting for me to see how writers make theoretical points into reality! and the stories that were not in second person were wonderful also – I remember Tenderoni! It was my first Flashathon! And the post card is so beautiful, I will have to use it for a very special message!

  2. Pingback: The Second Person Study, Part 17: “Apostrophe” by Randall Brown « A Just Recompense

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