Pushcart 2013: Anthony Wallace, “The Old Priest” from The Republic of Letters

The Republic of Letters story art

The Republic of Letters story art

The old priest is a Jesuit, brainy and fey. He smokes Pall Malls fixed bayonet-style in an onyx and silver cigarette holder, and he crosses his legs at the knee. He tells stories as if he is being interviewed for a Public Television special on old priests. A small, guttural chuckle serves to launch one of his very interesting anecdotes: it’s a kind of punctuation that serves as transition, like a colon or dash. You bring your latest girl to see the old priest, you always bring your latest girl to see the old priest.

The good news: the story’s terrific, and it’s available online. The bad news: it’s surprisingly long for an online story – 12,000 words. And, oh, it’s in second person, both primary characters unnamed. To cap it off, the protagonist is, among other things, a writer. Given all those no-no’s, I’m surprised anyone anywhere ever published it, let alone that it ended up with a Pushcart prize, but that should tell you something: namely, it’s a damn fine story. And isn’t that always the point?

It’s a story about exactly what you think it’s about but it’s couched in the lifelong relationship between a wannabe-writer with no stories to tell, and a priest overflowing with stories – he once flamenco’d the night away in Spain, saw Ava Gardner at a bullfight. But it’s really at its heart about what we carry with us and how we finally lay it down: love in all its destructive glory.

It’s a story that’s difficult to discuss without spoiling it; the effect is in the reading. The structure is a spiral built around the protagonist’s friendship with the priest, his teacher in high school. The emotional ride, brought to a devastatingly perfect touch-down by the last paragraph, is spectacular, as the writer “circles the airport” throughout the story, getting closer with each pass but not landing until the final sentences.

Throughout the first half of the story, the priest tells his wild tales (come on, seeing Ava Gardner at a bullfight in Barcelona? That sounds like something borrowed from Hemingway) while the wannabe-writer bemoans his lack of life experience, the paucity of stories he has to tell. He eventually realizes he does, in fact, have stories to tell: the priest’s stories:

You call the book The Old Priest and you get an agent interested, and he gets a publisher interested. Priests old and otherwise are hot news that year because of the sex abuse scandal that is in all the headlines… It is written in the second person; it is “mannered, overstylized, derivative,” to quote one reviewer. As a writer you have some talent, most people seem to agree, but you also have an odd quirk that has proven a fairly severe limitation: you are only truly comfortable writing in the second person.
In fact, you wanted to change the title of your book to The Second Person, but the publisher didn’t want to do it and the book went out into the world as The Old Priest. “Old priests are what sells,” the editor told you, “not witty references to grammar books and Graham Greene. Let your character be the sap and you be the smart one.” He was smart, that editor, but he missed the reference to Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Also perhaps the second person as the conscience or moral self, now that you think of it. All the same, you liked that: “Grammar Books and Graham Greene” should really be the title of something, though nothing you will ever write.

Being a bit of a second-person fan, of course I loved this. But the theological reference, not to mention Graham Greene, are just for show: second person is necessary to distance the wannabe-writer from himself. It’s explicitly stated in that explanation about second person as moral self. I’m also reminded of Marko Fong’s term for this use of second person: “alienated first person.” I’m especially fond of this term applied to this story because the wannabe has all the experience he needs. But he can’t face his own experience, he’s still trying to process it throughout his life, so he keeps circling the airport.

I wasn’t optimistic when I started this story, seeing as I haven’t had a lot of luck with stories featuring priests; but within a page, I was hooked, and stayed there. Part of that is the ramping of tension throughout: did he, or didn’t he? I also found some great scene work: priest and writer getting stoned on magic mushrooms with the priest hallucinatorially turning into a goat-man in a section that reminds me of the Bolaño story I just read; it’s great imagery with amazing symbolism built in, and just the right touch of bizarre ambiguity.

In another great scene, the protagonist recollects the role of priests in his family:

At a certain time of the year the parish priest came to bless the house. You remember your grandmother kneeling down in the cramped living room, her head bowed, the priest intoning the words and sending sprinklets of holy water flying from a small, occult-looking bottle drawn from his inside pocket. You like to remember his black suit, his black hat with its short brim, his small black cigar balanced nimbly on the railing just beyond the open doorway. The priest reeking of cigar smoke and spewing holy water on the dated furniture. Your grandmother kneeling on the spinach-colored carpet, kerchiefed head bowed low. Years later this memory or set of memories was triggered by the climactic scene in The Exorcist: the two priests standing in the room with the possessed girl, throwing holy water and chanting, “The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!”

Again, the subtext of that in the context of the story is spectacular.

I’m very fond of the telescoping of levels of story – the writer in the second-person story writing the second-person book that is the story, or part of it at least, and even extending into reality: the writer of the story shares a few autobiographical traits with the protagonist: he was a casino dealer and is now a university professor, and based the old priest on “an influential Jesuit he met in his schooling.” And come on, though I rather dismissed it just a couple of paragraphs ago, the Graham Greene reference and theological nature of “The Second Person” is very clever, yet it fits in completely naturally, without that tacked-on feeling of a writer out to prove how clever he is. Incidental cleverness, organic to the story. And finally, at the very end, all the cleverness breaks down into honesty. No wonder a 12,000-word online story in second person about a writer won a Pushcart.

I guess my bad-luck streak with priest stories is officially broken.

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Mohsin Hamid: “The Third Born” from The New Yorker, 9/24/12

New Yorker Art: Martin Roemers/Anastasia/Panos

New Yorker Art: Martin Roemers/Anastasia/Panos

One cold, dewy morning, you are huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother’s cot. Your anguish is the anguish of a boy whose chocolate has been thrown away, whose remote controls are out of batteries, whose scooter is busted, whose new sneakers have been stolen. This is all the more remarkable since, wealth-obsessed though you will come to be, you’ve never in your life seen any of these things.

Insert my usual rant about the first chapters of novels-in-progress not being short stories. If you read this (and it’s available online), expect an introduction, a series of scenes as exposition to (presumably) the story of the little boy growing into his promised wealth-obsessed adulthood.

But it’s still very much worth reading. There’s some great stuff here.

The family itself is wonderfully drawn. Father is a cook (“a craft of spice and oil”) , travelling to work in the city and coming home only sporadically. He isn’t disconnected from his own days as a son: “His own father derived considerable pleasure from the daily progress of crops in the fields, and in this, at least insofar as agriculture is analogous to the development of children, the two men are similar…. He sees the labor by which a farmer exchanges his allocation of time in this world for an allocation of time in this world. Here, in the heady bouquet of nature’s pantry, your father sniffs mortality.” Mom is likewise connected to the older generation, shown in vivid detail as she sweeps under the gaze of her mother-in-law: “Your mother and grandmother play a waiting game. The older woman waits for the younger woman to age; the younger woman waits for the older woman to die. It is a game both will inevitably win.”

What struck me about this family, in which the second-person protagonist (sorry; hey, try it, it’s not so bad, once you stop complaining about it, this second-person thing) is the Third Born of the title, is the transition of the family within itself and within the community, and the boy’s role in both. It’s a story (well, the chapter) of a clan becoming a family as they move from farm to city. I’m a little hazy on notions of tribalism and clans; I know the terms, vaguely, from long-ago Sociology 101 courses, but they’re still not something I actually understand. This story (chapter) brings me a little closer. In his fascinating Page-Turner interview with Cressida Leyshon, Hamid discusses the difference in terms of his own writing style:

Nuclear families are easier to write, at least for me. They have fewer moving parts. But the clan is important. It’s vital to understanding the world. The problem is that I gravitate toward compression. Slender books.…[C]lan-writing can become essayistic. But I think there are ways to re-appropriate essayistic writing in fiction. Certainly I’m trying to figure out ways to do so. Tell, don’t show. Sometimes.

I see this change, as the family moves to the city, as a move (with the attendant turmoil any move entails) towards modernity; it’s a key element of the chapter (I’m not sure if it’s part of the (uncompleted) book as well). But it does strike me, having read the interview, as “essayistic.” I feel like I’ve learned a lot after reading this selection, rather than I’ve connected with a character. And I feel like I’m fine with that, since it’s very interesting learning; I think I agree with Hamid that understanding the clan is “vital to understanding the world.” For someone more globally sophisticated than I, someone who doesn’t need this basic education, it might be less interesting. And for someone looking for a gripping story with a satisfying ending – sorry.

That’s the keyword for this story (chapter): interesting.

I’m interested in the role of birth order:

Yet you are fortunate. Fortunate in being third-born.

There are forks in the road to wealth that have nothing to do with choice or desire or effort, forks that have to do with chance, and the order of your birth is one of these. Third means you are not heading back to the village. Third means you are not working as a painter’s assistant. Third also means you are not, like your parents’ fourth child, a tiny skeleton in a small grave at the base of a tree….

Third means your success is decoupling from that of your kin.

I’m also interested in the writing choices Hamid has made: like using second person (“I found it pretty liberating as a form: you can move from a hyper-intimate first-person-like perspective to a cosmically removed third-person-like one very easily”). That sounds like something for Zin’s Second Person Study (I’ll have to include this story therein) – second person allows shifts in intimacy, the intimacy between the character and the reader, and between the character and other characters. I’m not sure this story (chapter) needed to be in second person, but I’m fully behind the idea that the author needed to write it in second person. The effect, for me, is that the “you” character seems closer to me than to his family. Which isn’t to say I feel close to him; not really. I feel a solitude from him, that he’s all alone in the universe, and I just happen to be looking through a peephole at him, following everything from his perspective, but still at a distance.

But Hamid made another choice: to obscure details of setting. No characters are named, which is not that unusual, but usually makes a statement about anomie or interchangeability. Here, his purpose is somewhat different:

I wanted to use Pakistan as a template, but not be bound by it. Not having any names in the novel, except for continent names, was a way for me to de-exoticize the context, to see it fresh. You have to think differently when there’s religion but no words “Islam” or “Christianity,” food but no Afghani tikka or Wiener schnitzel, beloveds but no Laila or Juliet. I wanted to find my way to something universal, and since I work with words, I tried to teach myself through selective abstinence.

Now you have to admit, that’s – dare I say it – interesting. I’d envisioned North Africa (I’m confused about betel nuts; I need to get that straight), but sure, I can see Pakistan. What I love, though, is the concept.

Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.

Bennett Sims: “House-Sitting” from Tin House, Summer 2012

Within moments of arriving at the cabin, you begin to suspect that the owner is a madman.

Now this is some seriously fine, seriously literary, psychological horror.

There’s something about the label “horror” that makes the seriously literary (and those of us not so serious literarily) cringe. It’s a spectrum, after all; most of the stuff of good fiction – broken hearts, betrayals, war, violence, madness, depravity, death – is to a large degree degree horrific, or it wouldn’t be interesting enough for a story. It’s kind of arbitrary, at what point a story becomes “horror” when the supernatural isn’t involved. So if it bothers you, just ignore that word. Because this story has chops, and it shouldn’t be lumped in with the lesser stuff.

The opening sentence is enough to discourage a lot of people: oh, no, second person again?!?! as if “you” is some kind of pungent green vegetable one encounters at the dinner table or the company cafeteria from time to time. But don’t be afraid, it’s got a delicious hollandaise sauce – the whole thing just glides down – and seldom has “you” been more essential in a story. The talking-to-himself vibe, fading into the unreality-vibe of the subjunctive. Very nice. I’m putting this in the Second Person Study.

The progression is the star here. The narrator – “you” – has answered an ad for a summer house-sitter, sight and site unseen. He’s a bit surprised to find the house is a run-down cabin in the middle of a field of overgrown weeds. “If the property is disheveled, then it must mirror the dishevelment of his mind.” No personal items exist, no clothing, books, knickknacks, just the minimal furnishings. And dreamcatchers. Everywhere, dreamcatchers.

The sheer excess: no glass in the cabin is unprotected by these webs. By these prophylaxes against nightmare.
Now here, you think, is a man absolutely terrified of nightmares.

Right of the bat, from the second paragraph, that the narrator is projecting motives and personality onto his unseen employer (and, by the way – there’s really no reason the narrator has to be male, I don’t think. So here I am projecting onto the narrator. Put that into your gender study and smoke it).

There’s a gradual slide into madness, of course. And eventually into subjunctive mood (“Of course, if you were the owner, you might find ways of believing otherwise”), which is where the serious literary chops come from. It’s subtle, and feels entirely natural. And even when read on a sunny afternoon in a clean, modern house with other people ten feet away, there’s a sense of increasing darkness and isolation that makes for damn creepy reading.

Double meanings abound:

Yes, you think, he has done what it took to protect himself from these nightmares of his and neglected everything else. While in the meantime, what really encroaches on the cabin is wilderness.…That is what the cabin reminds you of, in the end: a nail. Five rooms and a roof hammered into the heart of the forest, where they wait, with the patience of a nail, to become ingrown.

Not only is the cabin a nail (later the cabin is the hammer, insanity the nail), but “nail” has two meanings, which of course it does. All this nail business brings to mind the adage, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And while the narrator is bemoaning the owner’s tendency to neglect everything but the nightmares, he himself is doing the same thing.

But he doesn’t have nightmares. He’s expecting them, but no. After a week, he has what he considers a “waking nightmare” while looking in the bathroom mirror through a web of streaks and grime; a spider comes crawling out from behind the mirror: “The fact that the spider lives behind the mirror strikes you as unnatural and unnerving. It lives behind the mirror the way monsters live beneath beds.” The feeling passes, and he’s fine again.

A month goes by without incident (a great example of pacing). Then he discovers a clearing in the overgrown grass, and within the clearing, six silhouettes painted in black on the grass:

The six shapes look like crows perched along a power line, or like the chalked outlines of murdered men….what they most resemble are scarecrows. Would the owner have thought they could ward off flocks of nightmares, established in the yard like this? You would not put it past him.

And again, while speculating about just how crazy the owner is, the narrator has no idea he’s sounding a little crazy himself. And of course he gets crazier, deciding he’s snared by parallel thought structures linked to the house itself (“It is almost as if you have been hired not to house-sit the physical cabin, but to house–sit its parallel thought structure). Where does the owner, the house, end, and the narrator begin?

A game of anagrams yields a momentous discovery: HOUSE-SITTING is an anagram of I UNGHOST SITE. The narrator gets more and more into the owner’s imagined state of mind, what he is supposed to do.

The mountain contains the forest; the forest contains the weed field; the weed field contains the enclosure, which contains the shadows, and it also contains the cabin, which is coextensive with the thought structure.; the cabin and the thought structure both contain the dining room, whose walls contain the table at which you are sitting. Each container smaller than the last, and embedded inside it, like a series of nested parentheses. And at the center of this series is you. Every layer presses inward to where you sit. The mechanism is trying to crush your mind from all sides. But you are not worried, because you will never be driven mad. You sit calmly in the smallest chamber of all, your skull, impervious to the currents rippling against you: wall, wall, shadow, field. You are the one sane sentence at the heart of the parenthetical. You cannot be erased.

It all comes down to a showdown with a lawnmower. And a lady-or-the-tiger ending. As a general rule, I’m not a fan of that technique (it usually feels like a cop-out) but I’ll keep an open mind on this one.

Since he doesn’t have a website and he’s new on the scene, I can’t find out much about Bennett Sims. Bios list him as originally from Baton Rouge, with a newly-minted Iowa MFA and stories in Zoetrope: All-Story (and I’m seriously considering ordering that issue, though I have a policy to resist these impulses; the excerpt is, however, delicious), A Public Space, and now, Tin House. I’d love to find out if there’s any relation between him, the now-deceased liberal activist Episcopal bishop of Atlanta, and the screenwriter of Homebodies (1974). But mostly I just want to read more of his work. [Addendum: In June 2013 I read his first novel, A Questionable Shapecomments here – and I’m now officially a huge fan]

I’m guessing we’ll be seeing a lot of it.

Junot Diaz: “Miss Lora” from The New Yorker, 4/23/12

New Yorker illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

New Yorker illustration by Kristian Hammerstad

You were at the age where you could fall in love with a girl over an expression, a gesture. That’s what happened with your girlfriend Paloma—she stooped to pick up her purse, and your heart flew out of you.
That’s what happened with Miss Lora, too.
It was 1985. You were sixteen years old and you were messed up and alone like a motherfucker. You were also convinced—like totally, utterly convinced—that the world was going to blow itself to pieces. Almost every night you had dreams that made the ones the President was having in “Dreamscape” look like pussy play. In your dreams the bombs were always going off, evaporating you while you walked, while you ate a chicken wing, while you rode the bus to school, while you fucked Paloma. You would wake up biting your own tongue in terror, the blood dribbling down your chin.
Someone should have medicated you.

Hello, I am Zin, and I get to do this story because it is second person! And Junot Diaz makes some very interesting comments about second person!

The story itself, well, what is there to say? You can read it online, that is what there is to say! I am a little bit intimidated by Junot Diaz, seeing as he is a genius and all, so this is the first time I have read one of his stories! I hate to say it, but he does not seem like a genius to me! That is not really mean, because I am just Zin and he is Junot Diaz. But it is a kind of routine story, after all. What makes it interesting to me is how he talks about his use of second person! Maybe that is where the genius is for this story!

Yunior is sixteen and his brother has just died of cancer, so he is sad (these brothers were introduced before, in the story “The Pura Principle” which is also online). Yunior keeps imagining the world is about to end in a huge mushroom cloud! The story is set in 1985, while the Soviet Union was still the Evil Empire. Maybe, with his brother dying, it feels like his world is exploding! Miss Lora is a neighbor and a high school teacher. She is too skinny and very muscular, like she works out. But she and Yunior hook up, as the kids say. Now, that would have been creepy even in 1985, but in the story, it seemed perfectly fine. Not the sort of thing you would bring up at Sunday dinner (it is a secret affair) but not like child abuse or statutory rape, which it might be depending on the age of consent in New Jersey! But those things often seem “ok” from the inside – how many kids say “but we are in love” when these things come to light? I am very torn on this, because Yunior seems to benefit from it, and he breaks away over time, and goes to college, and is ok, he has relationships, so it is not a problem for him later. I think maybe it helped him heal from losing his brother! But I am not ok with being ok with it!

That is one thing Diaz says in the interview, because he knows some people will come down hard on Miss Lora if they see her as taking advantage of Yunior:

I had hoped to produce a piece of art that allowed the reader to experience a number of contradictory streams of feelings simultaneously. Sure, it would be swell if someone got to know Miss Lora before they judged her, or if their judgment was overturned by reading the story, but it’s also cool if a reader judges and knows the character simultaneously and neither of these experiences alters or counteracts the other. In a culture like ours, obsessed with its dichotomies, giving folks the opportunity to work out their simultaneity muscle is a worthy goal.

I thought that was very interesting, because that is exactly how I experienced it! I guess my simultaneity muscle is in good shape!

Now to the second person part of it, because that is what is really good here: I almost did not notice the second person after a very short time. If I remember my terminology, it is in what Brian Richardson calls “Standard” and what Monika Fludernik (oh, Monika, it has been a long time, and now I mention you twice in two days) calls “Reflective” second person – “You did this, then you did that.” It is also in past tense, so it is, to me, almost like he is talking to himself, maybe, in the future, with a “memoir” quality. Looking back, doing the “closure; thing, saying goodbye to a person who was so important to him at one time but now he is moving on but needs to tell this story first. Maybe that contributes to the affair being ok, because he is obviously ok, so there is less of a tendency (for me) to think this is something horrible that is being done to him. There is danger, though, because people should not become blasé about child abuse! But in this particular case, would it have been better for him to have her arrested? That simultaneity muscle! Embrace Ambiguity! And second person is considered “subversive” and so is getting the reader to feel sympathetic with a teacher sleeping with a student, so I think it all works together!

And this is how Diaz came to use second person:

I really needed distance from this story. Every time I wrote in the first person it was just too close. Tried third person, but that flopped as well. Second person ended up being the only way to get through. I guess I wanted my narrator to be “in” the story, but also to be able to comment on his younger self a little. That was the plan, at least. Second person, I’ve always noticed, has the distinction of being both intimate and repellent at the same time. A quick way of drawing the reader close but also hard to sustain for any length of time. Only so much a person likes being addressed as “you” by a complete stranger. I knew I’d lose people with the approach, but I was going to lose people anyway. That’s the nature of fiction: despite all our lofty claims of universality, no piece of art is for everyone—which is why we have so much art, so that everyone has a chance of finding something that moves them. I figured some people somewhere might connect with the tale even in second person.

This has nothing to do with second person, but I like his attitude, and it is important for writers to know that they can not please everyone! That is one thing I need to learn more, I tend to take every critique with equal weight and change everything and then I am frustrated because it is not the story I want to write any more! It is a hard balance, taking and rejecting suggestions, and maybe for me the hardest thing about workshopping, which might be why I do not do it any more. But I have to remember that when you are Junot Diaz, you can pretty much do what you want; Zin, not so much, I need some help. Simultaneity again! But here it is not so comfortable.

But back to second person! I kept saying, “Yes, yes!” while reading that paragraph! The commenting on his younger self, that was the “talking to himself” plus memoir I noticed. And when he talks about second person being intimate and repellent, yes, Fludernik also talked about how second person affected intimacy in both ways in the story “You.” When I talked to Marko Fong and Thomas Kearnes about their stories, they both used second person in different ways to affect the intimacy level, Marko to show alienation of the protagonist, and Thomas to increase the connection between reader and protagonist! And somewhere I could swear someone, Richardson probably, said second person switches between first and third (whereas first person plural manages to be first and third at the same time) so that affects the closeness as well!

I do think second person helped this story, but the problem with it was not second person but that it wasn’t much of a story, a kind of Latin bildungsroman with the ever-popular experienced older woman introducing a teenaged boy to the glories of sex. The brother and the fear of bombs add a dimension to it, a kind of life-raft thing, but still, it is not very unique in plot. I do think it was interesting for other reasons, though, and that is fine! And now maybe I will not be so intimidated by Junot Diaz in the future!

And: I have to say we did not plan it this way, but now we have two posts in a row of New Yorker stories by Latino men about sexual women from the pov of boys growing up! Even the art is similar! The other story is much older, and it is a total coincidence, we did not plan it this way! Sometimes this happens, there was a week of India stories, I think, and now Latino stories! But I think it is worth noting that I noticed it, and would I notice if there were three stories by white American-born men about middle-class married couples breaking up? Probably not, since there probably have been weeks just like that! And I think what I notice is something I need to notice!

[Addendum: this story appears in BASS 2013; I don’t have much to add to Zin’s comments, so I’ll let it stand. — karen]

Alethea Black: “You, On a Good Day” from One Story #163, 4/23/12

You do not set the story aside simply because the second-person viewpoint usually seems to you self-conscious and contrived. You do not get impatient with the story’s unconventional structure, its refusal to unfold in scenes. You do not, at the story’s turning point, pretend you knew what was coming all along. You do not turn up your nose at the ending because it dares to be hopeful instead of stoic or dark, like the ending of a literary story is supposed to be.

You do not, you do not, you do not.

Not on this day. On this day, by the end of page one, you forget the story is written in the second person because the viewpoint is handled so deftly. On this day, you’re happy to be reading a story that breaks the usual rules, invents its own, and then plays by them fair and square. On this day, the story’s turning point—its insistent shift away from despair—strikes you as inspired, exactly the sort of thing you’d been wanting without even realizing it. And on this day, the story’s hopeful ending makes you wish more stories had hopeful endings. It gives you a nice little shiver, the thrill of emotional connection that, as a reader, you long for.

That’s the story, right there; I don’t need to describe it any further, because One Story editor Will Allison has put is so much better than I ever could.

A lot of people are going to hate this story. It’s second person. It’s repetitious. It’s very short on plot. It’s “inspirational.” It’s everything a short story shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s not even really a “story.”

I love it. It’s the story I wish I’d written.

I’ll grant you, it’s repetitious. Black has gone to some trouble to break up the parade of “You do not…” and “On this day…” sentences by occasionally switching syntax around, varying sentence length, and such, but once she committed to this structure, she had limited options. It’s just on the edge of being too long for the technique. I’m sure there are many people who think the above three paragraphs in this style are too long, let alone a 12-page (albeit teeny-tiny pages) story. For me, it just barely comes in under the wire, to stop before I want to start breaking things.

And, true, it’s short on plot. It’s basically a “person goes through routine day and thinks profound thoughts” story. My favorite kind of story. There is some action of you look hard enough – she’s driving, in church, at the hairdresser, goes home and tries to work, has lunch, goes for a walk, goes to bed, tosses and turns, drives to city, goes to a movie. This isn’t really one day, is it? I mean, how do you go to church and the hairdresser on the same day? But any plot is secondary. The point is, whatever she’s doing, there are all these horrible thoughts that could overtake her. And, on a good day, she doesn’t let them.

Black deals with these complaints in her One Story interview.

On using second person:

Point of view is one of those things that I always feel chooses me more than I choose it. Although since this story started when I was trying to talk myself off a ledge, that may have helped suggest the second-person voice.

I’m a big fan of changing it up from first- or third-person exposition, backstory, development, climax, denoument mold. And I’m very fond of symmetry. I’ve even used it. Hasn’t everyone?
.
On plot:

The danger with a story like this, where mood and tone are so central, is that without sufficient plot, it could become more rant than story. I tried hard to give “You, on a Good Day” enough of an emotional turn to satisfy my appetite for action and change.

I suspect a lot of readers are still hungry. Me, I’m stuffed. But that’s me: I once wrote a story to an “end of the world” prompt that consisted of a guy sitting on a rock smoking a cigarette and pondering. No, you can’t read it; even I was embarrassed to send that one out into the world, though I was stupid enough to send out a story about inner thoughts while grocery shopping.

On happy endings (the literary kind – get your mind out of the gutter):

I think what sets alarm bells off for readers and writers alike is an ending that’s facile or in any way false. A happy ending that’s unearned betrays the trust of the reader, and violates Writing Rule Number One: Do not waste a stranger’s time. That said, I’m not afraid of a little closure or a little hope. For a while, those qualities have seemed unfashionable in contemporary fiction—a friend of mine described a recent award-winning collection as “slices of bummer”—but maybe that’s changing.

As a chronic depressive, I have trouble with happiness in general, but I don’t think that’s the story’s fault. And yes, I’ve written happy-ending stories.

(See why I’m no longer writing?)

I wish I’d learned to do these things better, rather than listening to those telling me they shouldn’t be done, because here is a story that shouldn’t work, but does. Oh, come on, even as you’re sneering, you’re smiling and nodding your head along with passages like:

When you get home, you do not let the fact that your Internet connection has gone out make you want to eat your own hands.

And you sighed and shook your head – maybe even an “ohh…” escaped -over:

As your hairdresser continues to talk about her doctors, you do not think about the doctor who told your friend, the one you did not call, that the lump in her breast was nothing. You do not imagine your friend’s face beaneath the green and yellow scarf where her hair should be.

Come on – that’s damn good.

Steven Millhauser won a Pushcart for a report on a town’s ghosts. Jennifer Egan was practically canonized for including a Powerpoint presentation in her Pulitzer-winning book. Jill McCorkle’s “PS” in BASS 2010 was just as plotless. Seth Fried explained fictitious microorganisms and called it a story (addendum: and, I just learned, won his second Pushcart prize for it, much to my delight; it’s the only piece listed in this paragraph that I thoroughly enjoyed).

There is room for this.

Kevin Brockmeier: “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device” (Madras Press, 2012; originally from Words and Images and The View From The Seventh Layer)

You have a pet theory, one you have been turning over for years, that life itself is a kind of Rube Goldberg device, an extremely complicated machine designed to carry out the extremely simple task of constructing your soul. You imagine yourself tumbling into the world like a marble, rolling with an easy momentum over the chutes and ramps of your childhood… then flying like a shot from the cannon of your adolescence and landing with an ungoverned bounce on the other side, where you progress through all the vacuum tubes and trampolines and merry-go-rounds of your adulthood… and all the while changing, changing at every moment, because of the decisions you make and those that fate makes for you, until faintly, with your dying breath, you emerge from the mouth of the machine and roll to a stop, as motionless as you were before you began, but scarred and colored and burnished now with the markings you will carry with you through an eternity.

Hello, I am Zin, and I get to do the comments on this story because it is a Zin story! And a Second Person story!

The first thing you need to do is plan how you are going to approach this teeny-tiny book. Because it is special! It is a Choose Your Own Adventure style book! I have somehow managed to avoid these all my life! When I was doing The Second Person Study (I am going to include this book with those because it is of course second person), my primary sources Professors Richardson and Fludernik kept referring to CYOA books as archetypes of second person literature – and now I finally read one! And I love it!

No matter what – whether you walk in the woods or go to a coffeehouse or McDonalds or call a friend or simply spend a quiet day at home – you will end up on Page 73: You will die. How would you like your memories of your last few hours to play out? Because:

It will be several thousand years before the human race develops a procedure to retrieve the memories of the dead from their bodies. By then the age in which you lived will be recollected as a time of barbarism and brute physical destruction, of interest to only historians of cultural degradation. But in the name of scientific research, a few sample bodies from your century will be exhumed for memory reclamation, and among those selected will by your own.

To the surprise of everyone involved, you will prove to be a very popular exhibit. People will wait for hours to get a glimpse of you, some of them returning many times.

You will come to be regarded as a sort of cult phenomenon. There are days when the line to your gallery will reach all the way through the entrance hall and across the courtyard, fading like a plume of smoke into the broken red skies of the city.

Now, your decision as a reader of this book is, how will you approach it? It contains maybe 30 sections, 2-3 pages each, which become 14 story lines with six “chapters” each (and one orphan section, partly quoted above, which belongs to none and to all). At the end of each section, you decide. Sometimes it is a simple action decision: go for a walk or stay home? Go right or left? Sometimes it is more involved: If you have ever really been happy, or if you have not? If you would like to go out and test the air, if you are comfortable where you are? These join with the second person voice to put the reader into the story more than most stories!

And it is a very interactive book! I suppose you could just read from page 1 to page 131 (do not worry, it is a teeny-tiny book so they are teeny-tiny pages) but what would the fun of that be?

So, if you are like me, you start at the first page and then make a decision on page 3 to go to page 21, then on page 23 you go to page 45, etc etc. And when you finish that set of “chapters” you go back to page 3 and jump to page 89 instead, and go where that leads you! It took me about two hours to read this, because I kept trying to put little notes and pictures on the pages to show where I had come from and how many jumps I had made. And then I went back to see if I had missed anything, which is a good thing, because otherwise, I would not have realized there was an orphan section! And a very important one!

And no matter what, every story line ends up at page 73. Now, I have to say: Margaret Atwood covered similar territory a lot more quickly, in her flash fiction “Happy Endings”:

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:
John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

But this book is not just about “whatever you do, you die.” It is, as the opening quote says, about how you build your soul! Is that not a cool thing? We learn a lot about the “you” of the story, who obviously is not “you” and thus does that whole subversive thing Richardson likes to talk about a lot. It does keep you – uh oh, it keeps the reader off-balance. And I think some people might become annoyed by this. But I enjoyed it! I love weird techniques! But the thing is, there is a character here, with a childhood, an adolescence, a past we learn something about, and in the present are specific events that are sometimes repeated in the story lines: kids playing soccer, an ambulance, the fall air. Whether “you” is home to take the phone call from the guy who dialed the wrong number, or whether “you” merely hear his answering machine message later, or whether “you” are out all day so never know about it, this is an event that happened! So “you” is a real character! We get to know this character, and I came to like him/her (I assumed he was male for some reason, probably because the author is male, but I am pretty sure he could be female as well, though I will have to check). All the while it is, well, “you”!

I forgot how much I love playing with second person!

Sprinkled into the story, in every arc, are wonderful little gems. “You” muses that the best SF writers “practice literature as a form of nostalgia” – and this is in a book designed to remind us of books from our childhood! Is that clever or what? When “you” sees a girl with a T-shirt that says “Life Is A Bedtime Story” “you” want to ask her: “If life is a bedtime story, then what kind of story is death….? A horror story? Or simply a mystery?” This, in a story about dying!

Then we have this:

How often, you wonder, has the direction of your life been shaped by such misunderstandings?…Sometimes you imagine that everything could have been different for you, that if only you had gone right one day when you chose to go left, you would be living a life you could never have anticipated. But at other times, you think there was no other way forward…It is as if some invisible giant has taken control of your existence, setting his hands down like walls on either side of you. He has changed your course with each bend of his fingers.”

And is that not exactly what the reader is doing, literally and physically, with the story? This kind of character-reader interaction reminds me a little of the very end of Sophie’s World (not to be confused with Sophie’s Choice which is a very VERY different thing!) except that there I think the writer was controlling the characters (I have not read that book in a long time, maybe it is time for another round, it is another wonderful fun book!)

I so enjoyed this! I first read Kevin Brockmeier about a year ago when “Ryan Shifrin” from The Illumination was in Tin House; I ran out and bought the book immediately – and it is still waiting, so patiently, to be read, because I foolishly used a stack instead of a queue (only computer science nerds will know what I mean, do not worry about it) so I have now moved it to my rucksack and have begun reading it on the bus – I think I will need to check out his collections as well. This story is in his second collection, The View From the Seventh Layer, but I suspect it was easier to manipulate the teeny-tiny Madras Press edition what with all the page-flipping and back and forth! In any event I am glad to have discovered it!

The Second Person Study, Part 18: Jim Miller, “Book of Puzzles” from Fiction Fix

Photo by Alix

Photo by Alix

Readers: Don’t be afraid. Let go and take a ride. You will be amazed at the worlds you can discover if you are willing to set aside your notions of the world. Sometimes the most thrilling ride at a carnival is the one ride where you have no expectations and no control.

Writers: Don’t be afraid. Let go and take a ride. You will be amazed at the freedom you have when you can step into the shoes of your character and let him/her guide you. Yes, its hard work. Yes, it is dangerous work…but if we walk away because its hard and dangerous then how will we ever build anything?
Jim Miller

Hello, I am Zin! And I have another story for The Second Person Study!

I “met” Jim Miller (hello, Jim!) electronically when he left a comment about The Second Person Study last summer. He is a writer who teaches Creative Writing at the University of South Florida, and does not cluck and wag a finger at second person! He recommended “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis – which I loved and included!

Now I can look at his own second person story, “Book of Puzzles” which was recently published in Fiction Fix; you can read it online!

Since I was lucky enough to have access to the author, and he was willing, I asked some questions and he graciously answered them:

1. We start in third person and do not realize it is second person until we get to the second paragraph. Is this deliberate? Is it a show of first impressions? Or some other purpose?
This was sort of done on purpose—by this I mean early drafts started a bit different mostly in the “you.” Except that wasn’t working. Second person can be tricky and there is no “right” way to execute it. In early drafts of this story, because the narrative was so internal, I had a hard time getting the narrator to work for me. As I edited the story, I shifted the focus of the intro because I wanted (needed) to hook the reader right away, and for me Michelle was such an interesting image that I had to start with her. It seemed to me that if we (the reader) start looking at someone else, then we are more willing to walk in the narrator’s shoes…

2. The second person seems to intensify the alienation the narrator feels from his life, his marriage – as does his not having a name, is that deliberate?
Yes and No.

Yes, I find second person allows me to create distance between reader and narrator. If I wrote this in first person, for example, then we the reader would be inside his head and would risk coming off a lot more emotional and quite possibly melodramatic. Second person allows me (the writer) to somewhat control the reader’s experience. (Which is possibly why a lot of people are uncomfortable with second person POV) With this control, I can steer the reader to the exact place I need him/her with out having to narrate a reason (nor allowing the reader the time to question the motives) For example, when we make a decision we wrestle with the pros and cons. In first person, the reader would see this thought process. In second person our narrator doesn’t wrestle…he acts—and we follow.

No- Not having a name was deliberate because I never found a reason to give him one but I didn’t do it to create alienation…that was just an added benefit.

3. The alienation Sarah feels is manifest in her crosswords – it is inconceivable a shrink would not know those answers, so she is using it as he is using the class, to avoid talking to him. Odd for a shrink! the puzzle book seems a metaphor for Sarah and their marriage, and he seems ready now to put in the time and effort to work on it! What I do not quite understand is that before she was the only one working on it, and it seems she was not working that hard, or that well.
I’m not sure how to respond to this…except to say that when I create my characters, I tend to try and humanize them by giving them the quirks the break past what we (as readers) would expect. For example, I know this person in real life. She is pretty smart and works for a software company…yet, at the same time she can easily be described as a “dim-bulb”. So if you meet her for the first time, your initial response might be “how does this person manage to get dressed every morning” or “how does she have a job at that company, doing that work.” She is smart in her field, but it takes her a while to figure out life outside of that field…she’s complicated, yet simple, and a lot of time this frustrates her friends and family. I see this complication in people all around me…truth be told I am complicated like that too…in my own way. Its what makes people unique and not cliché. My characters often tend to share these qualities. I ask the reader to forgive their shortcomings…but are they shortcomings? Not really sure.

4. In addition to second person, I have always heard there is a prohibition against writing about writers! Did you deliberately make him a writer? That seems to further the alienation between him and his life, how he looks at everything as a potential script, seeing Michelle as all character and no plot, seeing himself as the bourgeois cheating husband, even seeing the little boy as an actor in a commercial!
I think there is this unwritten rule…but not really a rule. I think what it is (and I have done this to my discredit) as a writer, when I read a book or story about a writer, my initial response is to prejudge the author with thoughts like…”I get it…write what you know” (sarcasm)….or more jerkish….”what, you couldn’t come up with something more original than a writer?” So call me a hypocrite, right. Please note, that often it is an initial response…if the writer is successful, I will set that aside pretty quick and fall into the narrative. When I teach, I explain to my students we will learn all the rules to good story telling and we look at stories that are deemed “excellent.” I tell them this is necessary so that we can break those rules when we need to…and then we read stories that break the rules and see how they are executed. As I said, I’m not always a big fan of writers writing about writers, except this time it sort of made sense. I guess I could have given him a different job, but then it would have been a different story. His being a writer created an environment for his predicament. Being a screenwriter works for our narrator on many levels…first, exactly as you mentioned…his life is a script as he is looking for the perfect script. Which is why he is a screenwriter—not a novelist. Let’s compare scripts and novels…Scripts are scaled down…all plot…all dialogue…where as in a novel you get all that and more. You get complications and context and depth. This is why he struggles with Michelle being all character. Michelle is a novel…and he needs a script. Also, I think his profession works well in this case because of his character flaws. By this I mean, as a screenwriter…driven toward success we see that he is willing to sell out his art for the sake of his art. “I’ll write this crap…to get my idea done. Let me preface that I am not a screenwriter nor do I know any (that I know of), so my interpretation of what they do is hearsay based on preconceived notions derived from pop culture…that said, I think compromise and capitulation seem to go hand in hand in screenwriting. I just watched the other night an episode of Family Guy…it was the one where a network picks up Brian’s touching and heartfelt screenplay and turns it into tv crap. Brian caves in to the pressure just to get it made…so much so that it is no longer recognizable. As a reader, I see this far too often…when a book is translated into a movie…so many times the heart is ripped out of the book and left on the cutting room floor. So my gross generalization here…and I know it is a gross generalization…was injected into the narrator.

5. His looking at the puzzle book, filling in the answers, is the beginning of change? Of meeting his wife half way?
As with most reading, the end is subjective to the reader, right? But my goal, my understanding of the narrator was that he missed what he had with his wife. He wanted it back. This was his way to let her know he was still in.

6. We have a shrink who can not deal with her life but buries herself in crossword puzzles; and a self-actualization teacher who is married to a cheat and a thug. The narrator does not seem so bad in comparison to them! All he has done is sell out to write a stupid tv show!
Yes…on the surface. The thing is, because of the story we do not really know his wife. We don’t get to know why. So in a way, it is really unfair to her, right? We never get to hear from her. We only get to see what the (second person) narrator lets us see. We get to see more interaction with Michelle…and through this second person viewpoint, how can we not feel sorry for her? Which means what…I don’t really know. I think what will happen is the reader will decide. By design, my goal was to make the situation a complicated gray scale. No black and white, but shades of gray.

7. I really like how he capitulates so easily, with Sarah and the first conversation about the script that is like the movie, and with her in using crosswords to avoid dealing with their marriage. And in class, when Michelle tells him he lets himself get talked out of ideas, he does not think so but then he does, so he lets her talk him out of his idea! It is wonderful irony! And that is the change really, he stops capitulating to Michelle when he tells her she is not the type he would leave his wife for, and picks up the puzzle book?

I get nervous when I say that a protagonist has changed…because on a very basic level I don’t really believe a person changes…I think people are hardwired. Now they might alter their behavior and they may be successful. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have changed the wiring…only the behavior. What I think happens here (and again this is reader subjective) is that the protagonist is aware of his behavior and realizes that he needs to alter it. He alters his behavior…but he will need to maintain it. And that is where the question lies…can he?

8. Why did you use second person for this story – what does it do that first or third would not accomplish as well?
Narrative distance is the short answer but it could be argued that I don’t know what I’m talking about with that answer. Narrative distance is how close you want the reader to be to the narrator. 1st person plants the reader inside the head while 3rd plants the reader as a fly on the wall (generally speaking). I wanted neither. I use second person when I want my readers to cast aside their life for a while and walk a mile in the narrator’s shoes. Which in a way (to me anyway) is narrative distance. In this story, readers are roleplaying…they get to live the narrator’s life and while they personally may not do the same thing, they will most likely judge him and they may hate him, they may love him…but if I did my job right, they will understand (empathize with) him.

9. You have said (in our earlier conversations) you like second person – why? Have you always liked it?
I think I have liked second person POV since I was a kid. I used to love those “you choose the story” type books. The ones that at the end of a page ask you to choose the next step…I liked that I was living the story. I got to pretend to solve crimes or find treasure. I also liked that I had control. I think that’s why I like it in my fiction…I get to drag the reader into an active role in the story…and I get to control where they go. Yep, I get to keep control…sort of funny huh? But I would love to write a new version of second person….a hybrid if you will. One where I give the reader a choice (just like those old books) and relinquish that control. In the end, however, I would write it so that all paths lead to the same conclusion. (so I don’t really relinquish any control). I have an idea for this, but I haven’t done it yet.

10) You find many of your students have been told to keep away from second person, and when submitting your own work have been advised to switch POV by editors. I do not have a specific question but I would like to discuss this more. I found some editors (of online journals) who were open to second person, but Randall Brown also said Rob Spillman of Tin House hates it and has someone else read and edit second person stories because he hates it so much! And I think a lot of beginning writers use second person because it is different and kind of poison the well! We can talk about these taboos maybe – “all character and no plot” is my downfall, but I recently encountered a couple of stories that were all character (I called it exposition because there was backstory and description) and no plot on purpose, because they ended on a moment of expectation, an intake of breath! I found them very exciting! And shifting POVs, especially having third person shift around a lot, is becoming kind of a big thing (see the Justin Taylor analysis of “Pet” by Deb Olin Unferth, is a Pushcart story that does this to great effect). Your turn! Discuss!
Where to start?

Let’s start with teachers…Why? Who knows. One thought could be simple. Maybe they believe beginning writers don’t have control of their craft yet? Maybe. Maybe teachers want their students to grasp the basics—plot, characterization, setting, etc.—and they believe second person techniques are a distraction to this. It seems reasonable. Maybe most teachers know they have a short amount of time with these students and second person often requires a lot more drafting than 1st or 3rd. Maybe the idea of reading 10 or 12 different early drafts of second person prose in one grading cycle scares them to the bone. It could very well be that these teachers come from an academic writing background that frowns on second person writing. Or maybe they simply don’t like second person narratives. I believe it’s a deeply personal reasoning and it’s hard for me to say because I like it and promote the use of second person in my classroom.

So why do I do it when I know it is going to require so much more work on my part as well as the student. It’s a challenge to the student. If they try it and they really work it, their work advances much faster than those who don’t try it. Maybe its because I know they will revise the narrative much more and through the revision process the work will be better, hence making my job of critiquing easier. or maybe it draws out the student writer’s work ethic…or the answer is D, all of the above. I’ve said it before, second person is about control…but then so is all of prose writing—control of reader expectations as well as control of language. I believe if my students put in the effort on second person, they learn this control in a different context…one that will serve them in all of their writing. Think about one of those stories you might have read where the first person narrative slips off topic and goes into some diatribe about this or that. When the reader is done, the scene is most likely viewed as “character development” and some might argue the scene could have been cut. In second person, the writer doesn’t have that luxury. Dragging the reader into a “you” type diatribe that doesn’t move the story forward is a trap. Students learn quickly that the reader is essential to the story and if they lose interest they will leave before the narrative ends. Because second person does tend to make the reader uneasy and it makes the reader work a little harder, it takes less to lose them…so the writer must keep them engaged. Teaching students to work through the difficulties of second person…working on the craft to keep readers engaged, improves their overall story telling skills work as well.

Because I enjoy second person, I have no reservations asking for it. I think ultimately, that’s the reasoning. Preference. If you enjoy it…no problem. If you hate second person…problem. So then, is the question why would someone hate it? We all have our own personal like and dislikes…so that’s kinda not a fair question. But I never claimed to be fair…so I will speculate. I’ve mentioned control a few times. I think that is what is happening here. When I was a kid, I liked that I could star in a story and have control…I think many of us do. It’s when the writer takes control away from the reader that we get some readers to go with it while others get viscerally perturbed. As well, some readers cannot ever imagine themselves as another person (or more realistically “that person”) and simply cannot connect at any level with the narrative. For example, in the case of “Scordatura” I have had two or three female students say they couldn’t “get into the story” because they weren’t male and they were not gay. But then they were perfectly fine with Lorrie Moore. So there’s that too.

Thank you, Jim, for the story and the discussion! And now, a few words about Jim, by Jim:

Jim Miller, some might say, was born with a pencil in one hand and a book in the other. His writing career started in 6th grade when he wrote a Science essay for whom he foolishly thought was the girl of his dreams. She got an A. He later earned an A for an 8th grade bully, sparing him a beat down of epic proportions. Through most of his adolescence however, his writing career fell to secret angst filled journals, silly revenge stories and trite song lyrics—all of which he promptly (and regretfully) destroyed upon finding them years later in a box under his bed. After a short career designing and copywriting for a super big ad agency proved that corporate cube farms are The Matrix, Jim, joined by his wife and children, moved to Florida where he received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. His work has been published by Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Prime Number, Prick of the Spindle, Stymie, Alligator Juniper, and is forthcoming in Tigertail: A South Florida Annual. He is the Graphic Nonfiction editor for Sweet: a Literary Confection and founding co-editor of the new e-journal (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida (go Bulls) and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

I have to add that I am a big fan of bios that introduce us to the person in an interesting way! So many start off with the intimidation factor, or dry lists of publications, and I am always happy to find a writer who is willing to let us know him as a person first!

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):

Apostrophe
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 flashfiction.net 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!

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….

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!

The Second Person Study, Part 14: Wrestling with Monika Fludernik

Why are You doing this to Yourself?

I have been tormenting myself by trying to understand “Second Person Fiction: Narrative You as addressee and/or protagonist” by Monika Fludernik, professor of English literature and culture at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, Germany (she is Austrian).

I can not make sense of huge passages in this paper! There is an entire vocabulary which sometimes has subtle gradations in meaning, and I am unable to decipher it: Histoirediscours – narrational enunciatory plane, – existential (not the philosophy) – actantial roles – metaleptic mode – covert narration – diectic center – phlogiston (no, I made that up, I actually know what phlogiston is, or rather what it is not but once was thought to be).

Is there a narratologist in the house? Hmmm… I did not think so.

So I will try anyway, and maybe along the way I will figure out some of these things.

In the three page introduction to the paper (which took me almost two hours to get through) Fludernik proposes she will do three things:

1. Outline the issues in fitting second person into narative paradigms, and setting up a typology. This is where I had the most trouble.

2. review the discourse types that generate or reflect models for writing or reading second peson texts. This was not so bad.

3. examine the short story “You” by Joyce Carol Oates (first published in Cosmopolitan in 1970 and included in her collection The Wheel of Love to examine the use of second person in fiction. I actually understand some of this! And it is a wonderful story!

First, Fludernik sets up her typology. They involve the function of address – and here I get confused because it seems to me “addressee” refers to the person doing the addressing, not the person being addressed, and that is where I get lost, I think! So I will not even try to parse it out. You can read it for yourself! If you understand it, please let me know! I seem to have particular trouble with who the “addressee” is – I am thinking the narrator is the “addressor” but maybe not! And I am having trouble with planes – narrational, existential, story, and enunciatory planes! I need to do more study!

Second, she lists natural discourse forms that allow for second person fiction to happen at all. One thing she talks about in the first section, that I find fascinating, is that it is very strange “the narrator to tell the addressee’s story” – and this would only happen in Real Life if the addressee had forgotten the events (“You let the dog out an hour ago), or if maybe the narrator wanted to relive them together (“Remember that time you went to the Cape for spring break? You thought it would be fun on the beach but you did not realize it would be so cold so you…).

But in the actual section where she discusses natural discourse, she gives four types of literary predecessors to second person fiction (all quotes):

Conversational storytelling: John Barth’s “Life Story,” B.S. Johnson’s “Aren’t You Rather Young To Be Writing Your Memoirs?”, Stephen Koch’s Night Watch, Hawthorne’s “Main Street.” Such a use of address does not intrinsically resemble second person fiction, but it helps to dangerously subvert the fiction/nonfiction boundary inducing the actual reader to, at least initially, feel addressed by the textual you.

Skaz narrative: A traditional mode of oral narrative in which a bard addresses the community…. Pseudo-oral literature such as Twain and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone Days; Gogol’s “Overcoat.” And: Second person fiction utilizes this subversive potential for creating an unsettling effect – that of involving the actual reader of fiction, not only in the tale, but additionally in the world of fiction itself, and eerie effect that can be put to very strategic political use. This technique has been widely applied, for instance, in recent black women’s writing where it allows the fictional narrator both to evoke the familiar setting for the community-internal reader and to draw readers from different cultural backgrounds into the fictional world of the black community, thereby increasing potential empathy values and forcing an in-group consciousness on the (factually) out-group reader. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula, third person present tense sections of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day.

Letter writing: In much second person fiction an address function is motivated realistically by an implicit or explicit letterwriting subtext. The reader, in her attempt to make sense of the situation of address, is led to interpret the address to an absent addressee in terms of an epistolary model. Alice Munro’s “Tell Me Yes Or No” is a good case in point.

Dramatic monologue: The dramatic monologue does not narrate, it is unmediated direct discourse. Yet the ‘point’ of dramatic monologue usually consists in the unwitting revelation of the speaker’s ignorance of (or worse, implication in) not entirely innocent fictional events. The raison d’etre of the dramatic monologue, lies precisely in the uncovering of a ‘story’ which the speaker does not tell but which her discourse reveals to the perceptive addressee. Browning’s “My Last Duchess” Hawkes’s novel Travesty – The text can be argued to be subversive both in terms of neat narratological distinctions and in terms of awarding the actual reader in her interpretive function a prime share in constituting narrative signification. [Note that Richardson specifically excludes Travesty from second-person status, which is why I use the term “person-and-a-half” and also another area of my confusion].

Then she gives four “non-literary antecedants” (again, all quotes)

The Instructions and Guide Book You: we all know this one! (this is not a quote!)

The Courthouse You: The rendering of the defendant’s or witnesses actions and thoughts in a reconstructed narration addressed to the defendant/witness with the aim of eliciting a confession (“you took her home…. You walked her to the door…. And then you killed her”)

The Generalizing You The most common departure point for second person fiction is the linguistic device of generalizing You: “when you have a cold, you feel really lousy”.

The Self-Address You When people in their private thoughts argue with themselves, assuming a dialogue between their egos and superegos…. one novel that makes more than a cursory use of self-address you, Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit: ” Sometimes he felt what he believed the white folks were feeling. Or most of them. Something, you felt against your mind, against all you knew. Against all you believed. Yet, there it was… you’d always wanted to know a white girl. You knew their brothers, you’d played with them as kids, sometimes gone fishing. But you never knew a white girl.”

So from these roots come second person literature!

Third, she discusses the story “You” by Joyce Carol Oates. That deserves a post of its own! But some terminology became evident (I am writing like her!) in the first few paragraphs and I think this is it:

When Monika (after all she has put me through, I think we should be on a first-name basis!) refers to “reflectoral mode” I think that is the “You get up. You feel the need to hurry so you skip breakfast and run for the train” type of thing, such as in “Scordatura.” This means a pretty much invisible narrator, one who does not exist – let me see, this narrator is not in the existential plane, but is in the narrative plane. And the narrator can not be an actant in the story since he does not exist in the story! I hope I am using these terms right. I understand what I mean, but I would just say “invisible narrator” instead of planes! Or call it “standard second person” like Richardson does! I think Monika is a troublemaker. I think the “instruction manual” form of second person would be included here, since there is an “invisible narrator” who is not in the story. I would consider it a separate form – but I am not a narratologist!

Then there is “homocommunicative address mode”, which is what I have been calling “person-and-a-half” – the type of thing in “We Didn’t” or “Once in a Lifetime.” I do not think Richardson considers this an actual second person at all, but I could be wrong about that. It is in fact more of a blend of first and second person – “I held the door and you smiled as you walked past me” type thing. The you is an object as often as a subject! And the narrator/addressor, who is probably a protagonist – to use Mean Monika’s terms – shares the existential and narrative plane of the story with the addressee, who might also be a protagonist! The addressor/narrator is probably an actant in the story, or at least is a person with whom the addressee/protagonist is aquainted. I am not sure if they both must be protagonists, but they are in the two examples! I am not sure how they could not be – I suppose one could be a minor character, but that seems like a silly distinction.

And she also talks about the intimacy and distancing aspects of second person! Wow, I thought I was making that up, I am so happy to find it is real!

First she says: “…excellent suitability of second person fiction for the expression and description of intimacy. This is true especially of the reflectoral mode where the second person creates an even greater empathy than first or third person variants (implicitly, even if only intially, seeming to involve the actual reader in her role as a possible addressee…” So as we read “you” we automatically think, “Who, me?” and are feeling talked about, resulting in more of a relationship with the narrator – an intimacy between the narrator and the reader. At the same time: “Since address combines a distancing factor (foregrounding the non-identity of the I and the you) with the presuppostition of an acquaintance with the person thus addressed, it proves to be a fictional mode adaptible to detailing the jig-saw structure of the mother-daughter relationship.” So it can work both ways! I will go into this more in a future post (it is not that simple, of course) but I was glad to see these concepts are recognized by someone who actually knows what she is doing!

I think I am beginning – just beginning – to understand Monika! This frightens me!

The Joyce Carol Oates story “You” will be next. It is full of interesting second person tricks!

The Second Person Study, Part 13: Editors Have Their Say – Ellen Parker (FRiGG) and Joe Levens (The Summerset Review)

You are allowed to use Second Person!

Hello! I am Zin! In various workshops and writing classes, I have noticed a lot of hostility towards second person stories! They are considered “gimmicks” or just confusing and not good stories. I have also been advised that “no one will publish a second person story” which as I have said before may be why I have never read a bad second person story – only the really great ones get past all the gatekeepers!

So I asked a couple of editors I know from Zoetrope if they groan when they receive second-person story submissions, if they have ever published second person stories, and if they ever write in second person.

Joe Levens, who publishes The Summerset Review, answered:

I personally do not have a problem with 2nd person when it is done right. I do think it is best for shorter stories, maybe at most 3000 words. The style can get a bit monotonous in pieces longer than that. Just my view.

We have published 2nd person pieces in The Summerset Review. One of my favorites is here: “Eddie” by Shellie Zacharia.

And yes I have written in 2nd person myself. I enjoy it.

I much prefer 2nd person pieces where the reader can quickly realize the narrative voice is really the protagonist, where he/she chooses to refer to themselves indirectly (i.e. 2nd person) to try to put some artificial distance between the real person and the narrative person. As in the example above. For some reason, that appeals to me. The other type of 2nd person, which is more like an instructional voice, I don’t really care for. But it could just be me.

Joe again brings up the notion of second person creating distance between the character and the narrator, which I think is similar to what Marko calls “alienated first person.” The story Joe provided, “Eddie” by Shellie Zacharia, shows this, it is truly wonderful! It loops around, the present and the story the protagonist is writing and her past and, finally, her future, I love that! The competing pressures on the protagonist generate great conflict throughout the story. And what I love most is that this story is about a writer writing a story – another no-no! So Joe Levens is quite a maverick! Either that, or I have to stop listening to people who say things like “Do not write in second person” and “Never write a story about a writer writing a story.” I am going to add this story to my Online Fiction Etc. To Read and Love page! And I find it interesting that while he is fine with the “standard” form of second person, he is not so fond of the “hypothetical” form (using the nomenclature introduced in Part 2 of this Second Person Study by Richardson). Having just struggled with Self Help by Lorrie Moore, I have great empathy for this! Though I enjoyed “How to Leave Hialeah“, go figure. Small doses, as I said in my comments on Moore.

I asked the same question of the wonderful Ellen Parker, editor of FRiGG. I became acquainted with Ellen both on Zoetrope and from when she published some flashes of mine last year. She is very smart, very funny, and very independent-minded and outspoken, so I was eager to see what she would say:

Actually, I don’t see second person used very often. And I do not have a negative reaction when I see it. It’s like any other storytelling mode: in some writers’ hands it works; in others’ hands, it doesn’t. In fact, I just read a submission to FRiGG yesterday that’s in second person and IT BLEW MY FOOKIN MIND. It’s really good. [Ellen added later: I want to add that the second-person story that I read in the submissions for FRiGG was accepted elsewhere, which I deeply regret, but maybe I’ll ask the writer where it will appear, so people can look for it. Also, I asked that writer to send me another story, and she did, and I took it because it’s also incredible.] When second person is used that effectively, it becomes invisible. The reader does not even notice it. It becomes organic to the story. And, in fact, it might have been the best narrative mode for that story because the writer is a woman (or has a woman’s name–so I assume it’s a woman) but the story is about a father. If this writer had used a more traditional narrative mode, the reader might have been confused for a while (and maybe for a long while, well into the story) about the gender of the protagonist. We are prejudiced when we see the name of a writer before we read the story. If we see a woman’s name, we automatically expect (right or wrong) a female narrator or protagonist. Somehow, though, using the “you” form throws off, or at least deflects, our usual gender biases when we read a story.

I’m trying to think if I’ve published a second-person story in FRiGG, and I’m pretty sure that I must have, but I can’t think of one right off the top of my head! If I think of one, I’ll let you know. And if I have not published a story in second person, it’s not because I don’t like the mode, but because I really don’t see it used very often. I think it might have been a more popular mode in the 1980s, after “Bright Lights, Big City” came out.

I have never used second person in my writing–and, now that I’m thinking about it, perhaps one of the reasons is that my fiction is SO “chick lit” (a term that has become pejorative, but should not be)–it is forcefully, militantly, unapologetically told from a very female point of view. When a writer uses “you,” I think that writer is asking every reader to identify with the protag. My typical narrator doesn’t always give a shit whether men understand her. In fact, she probably assumes men WON’T understand her.

I love that gender comes into play here! In the course of this Study with Brian Richardson as our guide we have seen that second person does tend to be unsettling and unstable because, in fact, the reader, narrator, narratee, and writer tend to merge and diverge, and here is a writer whose protagonists do not want that!

This is such a wonderful viewpoint! I am fascinated! It is maybe feminist narratology! And it just so happens that Monika Fludernik, my other guide to the science of second person, also teaches courses on feminist literature, and so perhaps I will learn more as I continue to study! I have made a start on Dr. Fludernik but I have to confess, she frightens me when she says things like this:

The function of address combines with an ‘existential’ situatedness on the histoire level: the addressee is also an actant. Under these circumstances the addressee is an intra-diegetic narratee, but not in the well-known “metaleptic” mode (Genette 1980: 234-237) where the extra-diegetic narrator playfully addresses a character (an entirely non-realistic, deliberately anti-verisimilar procedure, violating the boundary between discourse and story).

I suppose I have no business reading this stuff without an MFA at the very least, but I am working on it, one incomprehensible sentence at a time, for a future part of this Study!

And still, the more I read about second person, the more interesting I find it!

Thank you Joe and Ellen!

The Second Person Study, Part 12: Writers Speak For Themselves – Marko Fong, Thomas Kearnes

Are You closer together... or are You farther apart?

Since I am very lucky to have access to writers and editors at Zoetrope, and since this study actually started there as a question I posed on one of the message boards, I asked some of them to tell me of their experience, either as writers or editors – or both! First up, Marko and Thomas. All stories mentioned here are available online!

The main question I asked was: “Why did you use second person?”

Marko Fong (who appears several times in this blog for his stories and his insights into issues of craft, like here and here) intrigued me initially by saying he saw 2nd person as a kind of alienated first person, so I asked him to elaborate on any second person stories he had available online:

Zin,
thanks for thinking of me…I have two online. Also very glad that you’re going to write something about 2nd person.

I struggled with Law of Return until I decided to go second person. One of themes of the story is what makes someone complete. Would the narrator still be the narrator if he didn’t have OCD. Can Ambrose be Ambrose without being Itzhak’s father? The “you” is used to underscore that issue of “which is you?” and in the narrator’s case is the OCD you or is it something to excise? He’s trying to figure it out.

Battleship, I saw in second person. I think it’s also an alienate “you”, but in a different sense. It’s more of a “this can’t be happening” feel. There’s this science fiction like scene at the beginning, there are all these things that happened in the family. The narrator almost hasn’t had a chance to process it all normally. He sees it happening, but he can’t acknowledge feeling it. Hence “you” is both alienated and sort of accusatory.

So for Marko, in the case of “Law of Return” a change to second person resolved a writing issue and strengthened the theme of the story! And I love the idea that he heard the “you” as he started writing “Battleship” and used it as alienated and accusatory! These insights into how a writer writes are gems! Thank you, Marko!

Thomas Kearnes also uses second person, quite often in fact. He is very helpful in figuring out what is keeping a piece from working – one of my mantras when I am working on a piece is, “Will Thomas be surprised?” – so I was delighted to get some insight from him on his use of second person:

My history with second-person narration is quite extensive. Indeed, the first flash I published back in 2005 was written in the second person. I have no clue why I employed this device. To my recollection, I’d never read a short story that used it. It was total inspiration.

Throughout my career, the “you” voice has cropped up again and again. To date, I’ve published at least 10 stories that use it. In some instances, the narrator is addressing another, usually a lover. In these instances, the narrative style just increases the intimacy. It’s like reading a stranger’s love letters.

In other instances, however, the “you” voice is meant to be, in the words of one of my colleagues, “the voice of God.” In “Your Big Dick Can’t Save You Now,” I felt a first-person narrative would be unwise since my protagonist is so shut down emotionally. A third-person narrative, on the other hand, would allow the reader to witness the story’s vulgar, heartbreaking elements from a distance. Using the second-person voice forced readers deeper inside my protagonist’s psyche. I wished to offer them no escape. You know you’re screwed when even the narrator is taunting you!

Hope that’s a good enough explanation. Thanks again for including me in your project. Feel free to ask me anything else if necessary. Take care!

I love this idea of the increased intimacy of second person, as in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Once in a Lifetime” – and also as the “Voice of God” – the ultimate instruction manual! This is such a powerful story, and I agree part of that power is the use of second person. Thank you, Thomas!

I think it is very interesting that one author is using second person to show the alienation the protagonist experiences, and another to increase intimacy between protagonist and reader – and both work! I just saw the movie The Bicentennial Man where Robin Williams plays a robot who changes over the course of two hundred years, and in the beginning he refers to himself as “one” – “One is glad to be of service.” Then only after he moves closer to humanity does he refer to himself as “I.” I think the “you” of “Battleship,” the way in which it is used, invokes a sense of the more formal “one” and is distancing, alienating. But the “you” of “Your Big Dick Can’t Save You Now” is more of someone looking at the protagonist – what Thomas calls the Voice of God. This is similar, I think, to the way in which third person can be very close to a character, or very broad, and can zoom in and zoom out. So can second person!

Next up will be editors Ellen Parker (FRiGG) and Joe Levens (The Summerset Review).

The Second Person Study, Part 11: Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

Hello, You are Zin, Helping Yourself

Begin by meeting him in a class, in a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes.

Here is a book that even announces it will be an instruction manual! Not all of the stories are second person, but most of them are, and I have to admit, I got tired of it pretty quickly.

Part if it, I think, is time.

I got this book from the library and just started reading the stories without looking at any preface or introduction or jacket blurbs. And I kept thinking, This feels like the 80s. And you know what? It was published in 1985! It was her debut collection! I did not realize this. Oh, the 80s. Madonna, Reaganomics, MTV, AIDS, and Women Who Love Too Much. Women who in the 70s had learned to live alone and get professional degrees and have sexual desires without feeling ashamed and give orders to men and who pays at a business lunch when the host – uh, hostess – is female. Women who already went through the cute answers to “What does your husband do?” and no longer have to get his signature to apply for credit or have a tubal ligation. And now these women in the 80s were sitting around wondering, so why are we so miserable? and looking right back at themselves because it must be their fault, after all, so do not love so much, do not love the wrong men, learn to meet your own emotional needs, as you learned to meet your sexual and reproductive needs via a variety of appliances and medical procedures.

So Robin Norwood wrote Women Who Love Too Much and Lorrie Moore wrote Self-Help. I found Norwood annoying at the time. I find Self-Help annoying now, and I am sad about that. I wonder if 20 years from now I will find “How to Leave Hialeah” annoying. I wonder if I would find it annoying if I read it now. I wonder if I would have found Self-Help annoying if I had read it then.

But I am happy I read it! I now know that the instruction-manual form of second person, what Richardson calls the “hypothetical,” is best used in infrequent small doses.

The Second Person Study, Part 10: Daniel Orozco, “Orientation”

Hello I am Zin, come right into your office!

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed.

This is hilarious! Anyone who has ever worked in an office will love it! And very happily it is available online (it is fairly short and a very quick read) so you can see what I mean!

It is, however, puzzling to me. It does not seem… like a story? It is more of a scene, yes? It conveys a place, a setting, an atmosphere, but no narrative at all. It feels like a novelty piece. It is an orientation tour, with the airing of the dirty laundry of all coworkers. Advice about the temps. Admonitions about the coffee fund and supply closet. I loved it!

Orozco has his first story collection just freshly published, with this as the title story. And the New York Times review comments: “Seventeen years after it was first published in The Seattle Review, the story’s sentences retain their snap, but anyone reading it now — 15 years after the hysterical workplace simulacra of Saunders’s “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and 10 years after Ricky Gervais’s comedy series ‘The Office’— is likely to find its setting and tone shopworn.” I do not think I would go that far, but it is not as cutting edge in content as it once was. I am still very eager to read his collection.

It is definitely a dramatic monologue, and again I am caught in the person-and-a-half quandary. It does have far more of a “you” feel – an instruction manual feel, per the Richardson category of “hypothetical.” (I also think there is an autotelic feel to it but I will get there in a minute). There is very little “I” in it. In fact, we end up knowing something about everyone except the speaker of the monologue and the person being addressed. It is also the most autotelic pieces I have read outside of the explanation Richardson gives of the term! So – but not when discussing work flow and commands not to touch the coffee maker! So it manages to be all three of the types of second person!

But… it is still addressing a homodiegetic character! A new employee, who seems to have asked a question when the orientor (the only voice we hear) says: “What do I mean? I’m glad you asked that.” This to me is the only real false note of the piece, it just feels like the reason that sentence is there is not because the orientor would actually say that to an orientee who had just asked a question, but because it is necessary to break away from the reader and get the attention back on a homodiegetic character – which means it is not second person! Even though it is all three types of second person! But it is not!

But – and here I am torn between two authorities – Janet Burroway, author of one of the most widely known and most respected writing texts, Writing Fiction, uses this story in that very volume as an example of second person! I am not going to tell her she is wrong! I am so confused! I even emailed Brian Richardson in the hopes he might be able to help me figure out this dramatic monologue thing, but he probably thinks I am trying to enlarge his mortgage or finance his private parts (borrowed from the clever fellows at Right Hand Pointing).

This is one of those playful aspects of second person, I think! It is very playful! I felt played with!

In any case, the story is quite wonderful, and if it is a little less startling now that dysfunctional offices, like dysfunctional families, are part of pop culture, it is still fun to read!

The Second Person Study, Part 9: Miranda July, “The Swim Team” from No One Belongs Here More Than You

Hello, You are Swimming Zin!

This is the story I wouldn’t tell you when I was your girlfriend. You kept asking and asking, and your guesses were so lurid and specific. Was I a kept woman? Was Belvedere like Nevada, where prostitution is legal? Was I naked for the entire year? The reality began to seem barren. And in time I realized that if the truth felt empty, then I probably would not be your girlfriend much longer.

I have to admit, this story has really very little to do with second person! The first (above) and last paragraphs do address a “you,” in that same person-and-a-half voice. The “you” is an ex-boyfriend the narrator is talking to. She does not interact with him in the story, and she merely recalls having seen him, so I am not sure, perhaps he is actually a heterodiegetic character (the more you use new vocabulary, the easier it gets! I did not even have to look it up to spell it this time! Though I will check it just to be sure… It is right!). But those two paragraphs are still very much “I” paragraphs, as are all the paragraphs in between. Not that there are many paragraphs in between; it is a very short short story.

Still, it is a wonderful story, and I do love to spread the gospel of wonderful stories! I will confess, I did find a message board posting that contains the entire text of the story (it is that short…1676 words, not quite a flash but very close to it). It is a four-year-old collection, and the story was in Harper’s in 2007, and a movie has been made of the story. In any case, I bought the collection, instead of checking it out of the library, because it was reserved for the next 300 years (she has a movie coming out, The Future, so she is “hot” right now). That assuages my guilt a little bit. I am glad I did, it is wonderful!

This story is something you just have to accept without doing a lot of detailed questioning. It starts with the “you” paragraph quoted above. Then we move into the story itself, the one she would not tell. Oh, it is so much better than a year spent naked or as a prostitute! She taught three old people how to swim – in her house! No water! There was no pool, no lake, no ocean, so she put bowls of salt water out to teach them to breathe correctly (face down, exhale, turn head to side, inhale) then showed them all the strokes. She was on her high school swim team so she knows them all. She was particularly impressed by their butterfly: “I thought the kitchen floor would give in and turn liquid and away they would go…”

This started because she was living in an incredibly small town (we never find out why she was there, but she was stuck there, alone, afraid to ask her parents for the money to get out; she writes her parents regularly to tell them she is working with a made-up agency called R.E.A.D., teaching at-risk youth to read). And she overheard one of the old ladies at the store talking about how you have to breathe underwater to swim. And she yelled out, “That’s not true!” And she offered to teach them to swim in her apartment!

She looked forward to these lessons, twice a week. For two hours a week, she was Coach. They thought her name was Maria, though it was not; she does not know why they thought this, and we never learn her real name. They left her casseroles in exchange for the lessons, so she did not need another job. This was how she spent the year. This is what she was afraid to tell her boyfriend, because it seemed to boring compared to prostitution or nudity. I think I would be completely enchanted by learning this! I think she is much better off without a boyfriend who would think this was “barren” – or without a boyfriend she was worried might find it so.

Then the story ends with another person-and-a-half paragraph that sheds some light on why this is coming up for her now. Loneliness triggers past loneliness; all new losses feel like all the losses that have gone before.

The sort-of switch in person is very effective because it starts and ends the piece, and emphasizes the reminiscent quality of the recollection. And the pain of the present. It is really quite special. It is a piece I wish I had written, a piece I could have written!

But I might have gotten all bogged down in details, just like swimmers in real water! I would have drowned in explaining why she was in Belvedere in the first place and how she managed to live, to buy toilet paper and pay rent when her only income was a casserole twice a week. I have to remember this! Sometimes those things do not matter! A lot of people probably think they do and they will dismiss this story as drivel, but this collection won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and was one of Time magazine’s top ten books of 2007, so emotional truth can take you places logic and facts do not begin to reach!

The Second Person Study, Part 8: Jennifer Pelland – “The Call” from Unwelcome Bodies

Photo by Linda Johnson

Photo by Linda Johnson: "Double Take"

Would you give up your humanity if it meant saving everyone else’s?

When the call went out for a volunteer to try to enter the mysterious ship, not knowing who was inside or what they wanted with us, would you answer it? Would you say goodbye to all that you knew, divide your belongings into labeled piles to be handed out to your family and friends, kiss the cats on the head, and willingly deliver yourself to the unknown, knowing how many had tried and gruesomely failed before you?

Can you tell a story only by asking questions?

Hello, I am Zin, and my friend Stan (Hello Stan!) sent me this wonderful science fiction story for my second person study! Thank you, Stan! I love that science fiction can use second person, too… of course it can! In fact, I am surprised science fiction does not use more unusual narrative approaches, including second person.

Except… I am wondering if it is really, officially, truly second person? Hmmmm…

It certainly reads like it. Subjunctive is part of the second category Richardson describes, the one he ultimately called “hypothetical,” typically the self-help manual. If this were a self-help book, it might be asking questions like, “Would you like to learn to build a bookcase?” (Oh, how many times I have tried!) But this narrator is not some distant indistinct authorial personna, it is a character in the story! It is the “I” asking the questions! Asking questions of “you” – does that make it first person? Or is this a new category, the “interrogative person”?

I will start from the beginning! The story, what is the story? It is not available online, though some of the other stories from the same collection are. The story asks about three pages of questions that convey all kinds of information about this Close Encounter type of thing. We get the exposition:

Would you step forward out of a sense of duty to your species and your planet? Would you instead be interested in being the first human that the aliens allowed to meet them in person? Would you be in it simply for your ticket to fame and historical immortality? Or would you really just be running away from a life that was too complicated and difficult to keep living any more, hoping that by surrenduring yourself to the ship, you’d never need to worry about messy human choices again?

The story never says what the motive of the narrator was (how cool is that?), but from the way this is written, the rhythm and sequence, I am thinking it is the last choice, the running away that he experienced. Would you be noble or curious or egotistical? he asks. Not me, I am simply depressed. I am curious to know more about this. If I were critiquing this story, I would suggest adding more information about what messy human choices he was running away from. Oh, and I would want to clean up many sentences, especially the end of the very first sentence in the opening quote. And I might suggest breaking up the litany of “would you” even more than she does. But I am not critiquing this story, and Jennifer Pelland has published many books has twice been nominated for a Nebula award, so what business do I have giving her advice?

The questions also tell the story:

…would you step over the bodies of those who had tried before you…
…would you shrink from their gelatinous touch?
Would you scream when they jellied your bones…
Would you rail and beat the mush that was once your hands against the pearly carapace they’d poured you into…

And like that, until the last sentence, when it shifts gears. It’s pretty wonderful, and it felt accusatory, fiercely angry, and hopeless at the same time! And it covers some major human conditions and asks some tough questions: Would you understand? Would you exact revenge? Rage, or reason?

Here is the best part:

Who is “you”?

Is the “you” a “homodiegetic audience,” the people of the time and place in the story, the people of the fictional Earth in the story (it is specifically mentioned that this planet is Earth)? Or is the “you” – you? A heterodiegetic audience? The reader? Me? The effect of the tone and the phrasing is to make the reader feel spoken to – or yelled at – but of course these things have not happened so it can not be me, it is not a series of questions about 9/11 or the 1969 World Series or even a non-specific Christmas, it is about something that has not happened, that people know about. So the “you” must be in the story! Which makes it a homodiegetic monologue, and, yet again, person-and-a-half. But even if this not being “real” second person, this is exactly that playfulness Richardson was talking about ! That slipperiness in which “the reader alternates between identification and distancing” and “oscillates irregularly from one pole to another.”

That is why it is such fun to read!

The Second Person Study, Part 7: “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis

"Gypsy Children Playing Violin on the Street" from LIFE Magazine archives

When you’re seventeen and you’re the gay son of a Baptist preacher from Dallas Texas and you have a lisp and a drawl and a musical gift and you were named Oral because an angel told your daddy to do so in a dream, then New York City can seem like it’s saving your life. But when you’re twenty-four and an epidemic has claimed all your friends and all your friends’ friends including your one-true-love who you abandoned after a final ultimatum seven months before he died because he was drinking two bottles of red wine a day and not communicating and only finding out later that he had been HIV positive, and being shunned at the funeral by his hip political activist mom as well as the very last of the mutual friends in favor of his new lover who was only there at the end, and your tests keep coming up negative and your ruddy good health looks back at you from the mirror like a screaming miracle, then, when that happens, New York City can seem small and exhausted.

This paragraph is exquisite! It covers a short lifetime of exposition that is more interesting than some stories! Dave Eggers, who picked this story as his favorite for the 2002 O.Henry Prize (pre-PEN), describes it: “The story takes off in a sprint, in a roaring lyrical sentence that travels sixteen lines without a period. On the first page, there are maybe three periods. In the entire story, about eleven.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a really great single-breath-spit-it-all-out opening. And we know a lot about this guy before he drives off, “looking for a good cliff to sail off but feeling sure God would find a way to fuck with you, like He’d catch you halfway down and make you say that you love Him” and finally you “stuff a suitcase full of sheet music and a pair of organ shoes and head for home. It’s what anybody might do, including you.” I can not name all the ways of awesome this is – because, well, some come back later in the story and I would not want to spoil it (though I probably will, eventually).

This story was recommended to me by Jim Miller (hello, Jim!) as another second person story to add to my Study, and I am very glad, it is a wonderful story!

A little background: it helps to know a little music. “Scordatura” is a term I never heard before, but I googled around and I found it means an alternate tuning of a stringed instrument. I have seen articles on how it relates to Bach and Scottish fiddle playing, among other things, but the most interesting definition I found, in terms of this story, was from wordreference.com: “the technique of altering the normal tuning of a stringed instrument to produce particular effects.” The story echoes of music, and God, and I think these things come together in this. Also, as an aside, organ shoes – someone asked me if they were made out of a particular organ, as in a stomach, and I thought that was hilarious! No, organists play pedals with their feet so they often have special shoes which make it easier for them to reach and feel the pedals, decrease the sound of the shoe sole striking the pedals, and, in the case of women, do not have high heels that could easily get stuck in between the pedals. I know one organist who plays barefoot, and she is always caught by surprise when she is called out from behind the organ!

Back to the story. It is second person. True second person. Except for… well, we will get to that later. A review of the plot does not do it justice, since the magic is in this voice, this sad outsider looking for the comfort of home. He plays the organ for Easter Sunday service. He remembers a Christmas service from early adolescence, when he and another boy wore pantyhose under their choir robes. He visits his grandfather, a beekeeper who finds bee stings help his arthritis and pot helps everything else. Grandfather is also a Preacher’s Kid: apparently it skips a generation. Oral remembers a Youth Sunday from his past, when he was to give the Youth Sermon but bailed at the last minute. The climactic event has him carrying beehives, collapsing in fatigue, and imagining what that service could have been like, had he come out from the pulpit:

At first they would probably cheer, thinking you were acting out some live drama. They would chuckle at your squeaky, impeded voice. Then everyone would become embarrassed and ashamed…..Your dad would be the first to walk out the back door without turning to salt. Deacons would come forward, shaking their heads, disappointed and shy. They’d gently escort you off stage as Bob Sullivan led the remaining members of the congregation in some quiet hymn of mercy, something whiny like “There is a Fountain.”
Later everyone would smile and wince and treat you like a misfortunate stranger, like a cripple. Someone would hand you the testimony of an ex-gay. Then they’d wait it out until you buckled and the orderlies came to take you away. Only a matter of time.

The scene including this is tremendous. He is carrying beehives for his grandfather, he is overcome with fatigue, and what is imagined and what is real is never clear (there is a wonderful interest in his name, in knowing his name), there is tearing off of a veil, and his grandfather lifts him from the river with “big, hairy-knuckled hands and strong Texas arms.” Oh, find the story, and read it, it is glorious! It is Beethoven (not Bach, that would be Robert Coover) on the page.

I will not reveal the one-page coda, which in some ways goes back to the beginning and in some ways closes the door and moves on.

Now, I did some googling around looking for comments on this story, and I found a doozie by artist Paul Richmond (used with permission):

I like to think at its best, art can challenge people to think and see the world differently. Shortly after graduating from college, when I was still in denial about being gay, I happened to read a short story called “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis. It was about a gay man and was written in second person, so instead of using pronouns like “he” or “I,” it said “you.” After reading about this man and hearing the author say “you” over and over again, I realized that yes, it really was “me.” Years of guilt, fear, and shame were eclipsed by one literary piece, and the next day I came out to my friend Melissa.

Remember what Brian Richardson had to say about the instability of second person? No? That is all right, I will remind you:

…one of the more unsettling features of this mode of narration is that this distinction can be collapsed whenever the “you” could refer to the reader as well as the protagonist.

Most authors employing this mode play with this boundary…. A continuous dialectic of identification and distancing ensues, as the reader is alternately drawn closer to and further away from the protagonist. This you is inherently unstable, constantly threatening to merge with the narratee, a character, the reader, or even another grammatical person.

In the case of Paul, he identified so much with the character, he recognized something previously undiscovered, or at least unacknowledged, in him! I think this is quite remarkable! As I told Paul when I contacted him for permission to use his comments, it is not usually the destiny of the short story to change lives – that is what philosophers and stockbrokers are for! But here we have second person as a mirror. I believe it might work the other way as well. There could be some readers who might be distressed by the identification aspect of second person with this character. I was not, however, able to find any by googling around.

I wish I could find the email address for Mark Ray Lewis (he seems like a very interesting guy, writer, musician, landscape designer) and ask him what he thinks of all this. I also would like to ask him, as Jim Miller commented, just why he switched to third person for that last sentence. I am thinking it shifts the whole thing back, distances from the story, like a close-up to a wide-shot in a movie, one of those things where they zoom out from someone to the crowd to the planet, reverse GoogleEarth. Maybe it makes the entire story one of God talking to Oral – making it a person-and-a-half story all along but without the “I”! Would that not be something! But most likely there is a wonderful literary explanation that I am just not clever enough to perceive or explain. I hope I will find out, some day.

The Second Person Study, part 6: Jhumpa Lahiri: “Year’s End” and “Going Ashore” from Unaccustomed Earth

I wanted to ask my father what on earth had possessed him to marry an old-fashioned girl half his age.

I think I am finally beginning to really understand the connection between voice and distance, and the effect it can have on a story, on a reader.

These two stories are the second and third parts of the trio I began as part of the Second Person Project; the first piece was “Once in a Lifetime” and we met Hema and Kaushik and followed them up to the death of his mother. “Year’s End” picks up with Kaushik in college. He comes home for Christmas vacation to learn he has a stepmother and two stepsisters now! I found this story a lot less engaging than the first, and I think that is because it is much less intimate. It is in first person, with only two places where he addresses “you,” Hema. At first I was not even sure it was Hema he was addressing! He mixes in a very brief references to “your family” or “your house” but there is nothing like the sustained “you” from the first story, when Hema was talking to him. This is how they are different.

That does not mean there is not a great deal of emotion here! It is a big-brother emotion, not a thirteen-year-old-girl-with-a-crush emotion. He takes his stepsisters for donuts, and it is a lovely scene. He wonders about their father, if they miss him. And then at the end, he is baby sitting them and discovers them looking through photographs of his mother, they were stored in a shoebox in his room where they are staying. He is outraged they would look at those pictures! The pictures were put away after his mother died! He is quite cruel to them, and I wondered if they were too young to perceive just how cruel he was being, but no, they get it. He storms out of the house, leaving them alone (they have been taught the world is full of danger) and drives up to Maine.

He calls his father the next day and is scolded for leaving without saying goodbye. Kaushik does not get scolded for yelling at the girls; he realizes they did not tell! More girls keeping secrets! And they were in his room, just like Hema had to give up her room for him over that time when his family came back.

Here he goes into a more extensive “you” section, and remembers: “But I remembered you not much older than Rupa, and I remembered a day after a snowstorm, when something I’d said caused you, like Rupa and Piu, to cry.” I am not sure what this means – maybe he does not remember what he said! He’d said “something” – does he not remember he told Hema the secret about his mother being sick at that time? Or maybe he does remember and he is just skirting around it. He is extremely fragile when it comes to his mother and her death, this would be plausible too. I do not know! But it is a link, making girls cry, snow, borrowed rooms, Hema, and it peaks here in this very intimate, if very brief, passage, using person-and-a-half voice.

The third story is mostly in third person. Hema catches us up. She is in Rome twenty years later. She is a professor of classics. She is to marry Navin. It is an arranged marriage. She has just had her heart broken by a married man who was stringing her along, and she is quite shut down. We switch to Kaushik, still in third person, but his pov. Kaushik is a photojournalist (the photos, they are very important, see?). He and Hema meet. They spend about six weeks travelling around Italy researching those darn Etruscans (if you do not watch Jeopardy, you will not understand that, but never mind) and having an affair. She falls in love. He falls in love, too, as much as he can. He even asks her… not to marry Navin. To come with him to Hong Kong, his next destination. Hema notices this is not a marriage proposal and it does not allow her to continue her work. So they part. He is angry! What does he have to be angry about?! Hema goes to India for her wedding, and as she leaves Italy she forgets a bangle bracelet in security at the airport – it can not be retrieved in time so she leaves it behind.

And then he goes to Thailand for a little break, where he finally swims, as his mother loved to do – another thread that weaves these stories together. And it is Christmas. Well, I lost track of the exact timeline, but it seems it is 2004 (for some reason I thought it was the late 1990s but I guess not). Get it? As soon as I saw Phuket and swimming in the same story I knew what was coming.

For the last few paragraphs of this part of the trilogy she switches back to that very intimate Hema person-and-a-half voice. Hema is in India, preparing for her wedding, and she sees the tsunami from her viewpoint, not that she is in danger, but as it affected much of India. She knows “you” are in Thailand but not really where. Months later:

“A small obituary ran in the New York Times. By then I needed no proof of your absence from this world. I felt it as plainly and implacably as the cells that were gathering themselves in my body….It might have been your child but this was not the case. We had been careful, and you had left nothing behind.”

The return to this intimate, whispered, “through the wall” voice makes this all the more heartbreaking! I have been reading for years about how voice and distance work and this is the first time I have read a story and thought, “Oh, now I see!” But it is distance between characters, not between narrator/character and reader!

And I understand better the use of person-and-a-half in the first part as well, I understand why she is telling this now (I said I thought there would be some tragedy), it makes much more sense to me now – it is a funeral prayer, a memorial service! This is a lovely trilogy!

The Second Person Study, Part 5: Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t” from I Sailed With Magellan

How adept we were at fumbling, how perfectly mistimed our timing, how utterly we confused energy with ecstacy.

Hello I am Zin! Welcome to another entry in my Second Person Study!

Another direct address to a participant in the story! Oh, I despair of ever finding a true second-person story! But it is a good story nonetheless, a relationship defined by what is not.

What are all the things that “did not” in the story? Besides the obvious, of course: two 1950s Chicago teens on the shores of Lake Michigan about to lose their virginity (complete with a condom dropped in the sand) when searchlights and sirens and police cars descend upon them – no, not upon them, upon the body of a young pregnant woman floating in the shallows just off the beach. Most of us remember how and where and when we lost our viriginity. Not that many of us remember how and where and when we did not. A life defined by absence. What you never had overshadows what you have.

But there is another sense to the phrase “We Didn’t” – it is a reassurance!

“But what if we had found her? What if after we had – you know,” you said, your eyes glancing away from mine and your voice tailing into a whisper, “what if after we did it, we went for a night swim and found her in the water?”
“But, Gin, we didn’t,” I tried to reason, though it was no more a matter of reason than anything else between us had ever been.

After this event the woman is with them always. At first it is just when they start to make out. But it gets more serious. Gin has dreams about her, imagines the whole life. “Even when she wasn’t mentioned, she was there with her drowned body – so dumpy next to yours – and her sad breasts…” They break up, of course. He becomes “the DH Lawrence of not doing it.” And he closes of the story:

But we didn’t, not in the moonlight, or by the phosphorescent lanterns of lighning bugs in your back yard, not beneath the constellations we couldn’t see, let alone decipher, or in the dark glow that replaced the real darkness of night, a darkness already stolen from us, not with the skyline rising behind us while a city gradually decayed, not in the heat of summer while a Cold War raged despite the freedom of youth and the license of first love – because of fate, karma, luck, what does it matter? – we made not doing it a wonder, and yet we didn’t, we didn’t, we never did.

I love the ambiguity there – is the last phrase of nots referring to not doing it, or to making not doing it a wonder?

So why in person-and-a-half? Why not in regular first person with Gin as “she”? The book is a series of linked stories about this boy. I have not read the other stories, but in a quick skim I do not think any of them are person-and-a-half. Maybe it is because this story is more intimate, it requires a more intimate form of address, a voice saved for Gin alone. Maybe it echoes how he still wants to speak to her and tell her, how the not doing it is still part of him.

In an interview with Other Voices Dybek discusses the origins of the piece. His major inspiration was a poem by Yehuda Amichai called “We Did It” and he uses a quote from this poem at the opening of “We Didn’t”:

We did it in front of the mirror
And in the light. We did it in darkness,
In water, and in the high grass.

Compare this with the opening of “We Didn’t”:

We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in darkness. We didn’t in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows.”

The last paragraph of the story, quoted above, echoes this poetry, and adds in some of the glory of the later lines of the poem:

We did it with imagination and colours,
With confusion of reddish hair and brown
And with diffuclt gladdening
Exercises. We did it

Like wheels and holy creatures
And with chariot-feats of prophets.

He also credits as inspiration the poetry of Pablo Neruda – Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair – (“Love is brief: forgetting lasts so long”). And Molly Bloom, her soliloquy from Ulysses. I am not sure if any of these sources indirectly inspired this inspired person-and-a-half voice (none of them use it). Maybe the poetic feel of the language.

In any event it is a lovely story, full of nostalgia and love and regret and acceptance.