The Second Person Study, Part 17: “Apostrophe” by Randall Brown

Photo by Theodor Horydczak

I recently had the honor of providing the prompt for the Zoetrope Flash Factory challenge, and as a result gained another second person story for this Study from Randall Brown!

The exact prompt, courtesy of Richard Osgood from The Flash Factory on Zoetrope:

This from Zin, and it’s sure to be one of the better learning opportunities we’ve had in the Factory for some time, particularly for those in need of improvement in second person narrative–Thanks, Zin!

Yup, you read it correctly. Second person narrative. Your task this week is to write a story in second person narrative with the condition that the following two words must be used at least once in the story (but not necessarily together):

1. Gruel
2. Gummi Bears

Okay, technically “Gummi Bears” is two words. Deal with it.

750 words or less.

(The gruel and gummi bears are a shout-out to another Zoetrope cohort, Marko Fong, whose name also makes frequent appearances in this blog)

Here is the flash Randall wrote for the prompt (which he has generously donated):

Randall Brown

You showed me, when it seemed all the stores were sold-out, where to find Bubble-Yum, Pop Rocks, and Gummi Bears. You pedaled ahead of me past the Dairy Queen, Pensupreme, Bonanza, Roy Rogers, to that tiny store tucked between the Flying Carpet Mart and Payless. It seemed they had whatever couldn’t be found elsewhere, and you said it had something to do with magic, the Willie Wonka kind. On the way back, you taught me “Gruel,” a kind of punishment for the fulfilled wishes of that hidden store, the pedaling at full speed up Brentwater Hill, dodging the balls gone astray from the golf course. You might’ve been the first person ever to say “no pain, no gain.”

Afterward, you sat on the branch of the willow tree beside the pond and blew Bubble-Yum bubbles, crackled with Pop Rocks, sucked on Gummi Bears until they disappeared. And when, in fifth grade, my mother’s affair with your father became known, and I couldn’t stop eating, and I no longer could lift myself up, you turned away, like everyone else in the world. I’d pedal alone to that store filled with unfulfilled wishes like twisted Marathon Bars and when I got to that grueling hill, I imagined you at the top, laughing at me. I still hear you. I’m still pedaling. I still can’t make it stop.

First, the title: “Apostrophe” is a rhetorical device originally from ancient Greece used to “describe the act of an orator turning away (Gk. apo ‘away’ and strophein ‘to turn’) from his normal audience, the judges, to address another: whether his adversary, a specific member of the jury, someone absent or dead, or even an abstract concept or inanimate object” (Irene Kancades, Style, 1994). As used in fiction, the narrator, instead of addressing the reader, addresses another person or abstract idea – in this case, the “you” is a friend from childhood who “turned away” – a word twist that is enough to make a geek jump up and down – from the narrator at a troubled point. Obviously, this could not have been done in first or third person! So this story absolutely requires second person, and makes excellent use of it!

Now, as we have already Studied, in Unnatural Voices, Brian Richardson defined second person excluding apostrophe: “any narration other than an apostrophe that designates its protagonist by a second person pronoun. This protagonist will usually be the sole focalizer, and is often (but not always) the work’s principle narratee as well.” However he also says, in another section of his chapter: “It should also be noted that my account enumerates tendencies rather than stipulates invariant conditions; this is because second person narration is an extremely protean form, and its very essence is to eschew a fixed essence.” Which, I think, means “what ever you can get away with is fine by me.” Me, too!

Then we have also studied how the diabolical Monika Fludernik talks about the second person narrator and the addressee sharing narrative and historical planes, and “homocommunicative address mode” (do you see why I call her diabolical?); she recognizes the apostrophe as an antecedent of second person fiction.

And I have been calling this type of voice, with a narrator addressing a character in the story, “person and a half” which is pretty cheeky of me since I have absolutely no qualifications to call anything anything; but to me, the story belongs to the narrator, with the “you” an important character in the story (as opposed to someone outside the story). The individual sentences necessarily switch back and forth between first and second person through out the story (like the last two sentences of “Apostrophe”). And one of my sources excludes apostrophe, the other does not. So I cut the baby in half! I just wish there was an ordinal for “one and a half.”

This is the voice used in “Once in a Lifetime” by Jhumpa Lahiri, “An Apple Could Make You Laugh” by Joe Meno, (both of which are available online) and several other stories in this Study. Some day I hope I will meet someone who can tell me where I have gone astray in this, that it definitely is or is not second person! But for now, I am sticking with person-and-a-half! It is like tomatoes, and eggplant – technically, they are fruits (berries, to be exact) but people look at you strangely when you call them that. So this story, whether or not it is technically second person, sure sounds like it to most of us! Still, it is different from what Richardson calls standard mode.

But “Apostrophe” is not just a clever play on technicalities; it is also a heartbreaking story, and by the end I think we all want the narrator to find peace, to make it stop.

Though it has nothing to do with second person, I find it interesting, as I often do with gender issues, that I have no idea of the gender of either character, and it could work in any combination, with or without a child-level romantic connotation. I associate the bicycles and candies involved, as well as the idea of a game called “Gruel,” more with boys than girls, but the idea that emotional stress would cause compulsive overeating is perhaps more a trait associated with females; I end up leaning towards the narrator as a girl and the “you” being a boy.

It is a flash that again takes my breath away!

Randall donated not only the story, but his time in answering a few questions:

How did you approach the prompt? The apostrophe stands out, but is that what came to you first?
My daughter the other day was eating Pop Rocks, and I was telling her how we used to search and search for them when I was a kid, with every store being sold out. So that was fresh in my mind. The apostrophe’s central sense of “turning away” combined with these candy-search memories to get this flash on its way.

One story in your book, Mad to Live, goes in and out of second person (“You Want”). What makes you decide to use second person for a particular flash? Is there anything you think second person is particularly good for, an effect it conveys?
In “You Want,” I wanted the invisible narrator/author’s relationship with the “you” of the story to be part of the tension and drama. I’m often trying to find different ways to get tension and conflict in that compressed space of very tiny fiction. I often get a “noir” sense out of second-person, that sense of a “you” trapped and doomed by a Fate that he/she cannot control. Tin House editor Rob Spillman has said this about second-person: “I have a pet peeve against the second person that I call the second–person accusatory: ‘You are walking down the street.’ I go, ‘No, I am not walking down the street.’ I hand those stories to another editor who likes those kinds of stories and they will hand it back to me if they really are good.” I think his reaction is to that feeling of losing control, of being forced to be walking down the street, of being placed there against his will. I actually like that feeling of some second-person stories. That being said, I probably prefer second-person stories in which the “you” isn’t the reader, but someone else. [Aha! Part of the inherent “instability” Richardson talks about, the “continuous dialectic of identification and distancing” – it is so exciting to see theory in practice! And this is a very good practical reason why “homocommunicative address mode” deserves a separate category!]

You also are the founder and editor of Matter Press (I have already talked to Kathy Fish about her book, Wild Life, which you published recently). Do you cringe when you see second person stories? I have always heard editors hate second person, but I have yet to find an editor who actually does (though I have only talked to three so far). I have also said I have never read a bad published second person story, and I think that is because editors are perhaps extra hard on them!
I do cringe when I see one. I think, percentage-wise, I am less likely to like a second-person story than one not written in second-person. There are of course many reasons why this might be true, most of them beyond me. But I think that some writers feel that the second-person is the beginning and end of their battle against expectations, so that the second-person ends up feeling a bit gimmicky.

This has nothing to do with second person but I will ask anyway! One of the concepts I picked up from your blog is that of “fixity” which you picked up in a poetry class with writer-teacher-poet-artist-editor Terri Brown-Davidson – choosing the right poetic word for the right poetic occasion, to subtly echo a common theme. I always look for this in your stories. I am almost never sophisticated enough to find it! I find a lot of “magic” words here, but I also see a lot of pedaling, a lot of exercise and play. Is this deliberate? Or am I overreading again?
I think, for the narrator in “Apostrophe,” that this childhood of his is chock-full of things he turned away from: magic, exercise, play. And set against that is this obsession with that time in his life, a time he cannot turn away from. Embedded in the idea of apostrophe is its use in punctuation, marking omissions and possession. That sense is also somewhere in there. I do think that my process is about having words bounce off each other and finding unusual connections; I want to find unexpected meanings in things such as juxtaposition. I’m far less interested in what it all adds up to. So I don’t think you are over-reading and it is deliberate, but it’s deliberate from the story-creating side of things, and less deliberate from the meaning-making side of things.

For example, here are the ending lines: “…and when I got to that grueling hill, I imagined you at the top, laughing at me. I still hear you. I’m still pedaling. I still can’t make it stop.” There’s a deliberate use of progressive tense (grueling, laughing, pedaling), a verb tense that, according to Wikipedia, has “two principal meaning components”: duration and in-completion. These verbs might help carry that sense that these things are continuing and his actions can never be completed, because the past doesn’t really exist and no matter how hard one pedals, one can never reach it. It’s gone, like all those eaten candy bars. There’s something magic about the way that past disappears. Poof! That “still” has the meaning of “not-moving,” so I thought that might create some kind of tension/drama next to that sense of moving, something I thought might be reinforced by the piece’s ending on “stop.” And so on…

What fills me with awe are the conscious decisions, the precise word choice that goes into this story. And I am embarrassed to admit, I was so carried away by the use of the word “apostrophe” in the rhetorical sense, I completely overlooked the meaning of it as punctuation – which I now see was a mistake! Lesson learned – do not overlook anything in a flash at this level! And it also encourages me to be far more aware of my own word choices, sentence structures, and layers of meaning!

Thank you so much, Randall!

10 responses to “The Second Person Study, Part 17: “Apostrophe” by Randall Brown

    • Hello, Mr. Gruel and Gummi Bear!

      Randall is pretty amazing, yes! I love what he says about using imperfect tense to keep things moving, moving, then – stop. Now if I could only DO these things instead of just knowing about them!

  1. Hello Zin, I just recently–as in today–began reading your posts on The Second Person Study. They are all great and I share your views on the use of second person. I am a bit biased, though. I published a novel written entirely in the second-person. You have added many stories to my reading list and I look forward to what you will feature next.

  2. I just stumbled across this. I didn’t know you had a blog! How cool is that? And Randall is correct: One of the best prompts we ever had (or something like that).


    • Hello, Richard! I am so happy to see you here! And I am so happy you liked this!

      But my dear… not only did you give me permission to use the prompt (I asked you since it was your words), you even commented on it when Randall posted a link in the Factory last October! It is ok, I know how it is, the age, it gets to all of us, the brain cells start to misfire….

      Thank you for providing the Flash Factory as a place where so much good stuff gets done!

  3. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: Literaria, Part 1 | A Just Recompense

  4. Pingback: Apostrophe as an idea | Alexander B. Craghead

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