Second person narration

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Following up on our discussion of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (for a recording of Kincaid reading it, click here), I thought I’d point to some more definite uses of second-person narration. (As we saw, “Girl” is arguably entirely dramatic–i.e., it is entirely made out of dialogue and so has no narration–so the “you” and “I” are not really the story’s narrational “person” but rather just the pronouns by which the protagonist (the “Girl” of the title) is known to her mother and to herself. But there are fictions in which the second-person cannot be read in this way.

It’s definitely an odd mode for fiction (it’s so conventional in cookbooks, though, that we don’t even notice it), but it has been used successfully in novels like Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, Marcel Butor’s The Transformation and, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. Creative writing students often experiment with second-person narration but rarely consider the complex technical issues involved in using it well (i.e., in using it because it produces effects that traditional 1st and 3st person narratives can’t produce).

Second-person narration has become almost synonymous with the American writer Lorrie Moore, as we see in her famous short story “How to Become a Writer.” To make matters more complex, Moore’s narrator seems to oscillate between two kinds of second-person narration: (1) the imperative (see first page), in which the narrative is a set of instructions or commands (much like “Girl”), for example “Decide to experiment with fiction. Here you don’t have to count syllables”; and (2) the descriptive, in which specific events are relayed, for example “When you get [the story] back, he has written on it: ‘Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.'” As these examples should make clear, the imperative is a first-person mode, whereas the descriptive is a third-person mode; to see this distinction, just translate each passage into both voices and see which works best. (The notion that second-person is always either first- or third-person comes from Matt DelConte. “Why You Can’t Speak: Second-Person Narration, Voice, and a New Model for Understanding Narrative.” Style 37.2 (2003): 204-19.)

Finally, to simplify what I was saying about narrators and narratees: in traditional 1st and 3rd person narration, we rarely have to think much about the narratee–the “character” whom the narrator speaks to, either explicitly (as in Lolita, where the narrator Humbert Humbert pleads his case to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury”) or implicitly (as in Thinks…, where Ralph speaks into his dictaphone for the benefit of his listener–himself, i.e., he is both narrator and narratee). So, again, in traditional narration, we rarely have to think much about the narratee, but 2nd person narration makes it impossible to ignore, because the narratee is an active character (“You turn on the ignition; you drive away, accelerating; you run over a squirrel–you maniac!”) or an acknowledged listener/audience (“You wonder why I’m late, so I explain, but you’re impatient, you’ve heard it all before, you drank the whole bottle of wine waiting and now you find it hard to concentrate as I list all the delays and the freak accidents, including running over a squirrel, that resulted in my being late for your birthday”). In the first case especially, it’s obvious that the narrator is “really” a 3rd person narrator (“She turns on the ignition; she drives away, accelerating; she runs over a squirrel–the maniac!) but one in which the character “she” is addressed directly by the narrator as “you.”

Jonathan Nolan’s “Memento Mori,” as you no doubt noticed, alternates between 2nd person narration (of the 1st person variety) and omniscient 3rd person. I’m hard pressed to say whether this alternation is a necessary quality of the story, or if Nolan simply found he couldn’t write the story intelligibly in the 2nd person alone. In any case, though, I think the use of the 2nd person is perfect for this story, which is a kind of detective tale / revenge tragedy, because this type of narration forces the reader to share in the disorientation of “you” (Earl); the fact that the narrator “I” is also Earl, but another, hard-to-place version of Earl, makes a single problem out of two interpretive problems: what is the relation between “I” and “you”; and what is Earl’s problem, and why does he want revenge? The hermeneutic code is dominant in this story, as you’d expect of a detective tale.

By the way, the philosopher I mentioned in an off-hand way, and to whom we’ll return on Wednesday, is Henri Bergson, who is most famous for positing a distinction between mechanical “time” (an mathematical abstraction, by which time can be broken up into a series of static points–think of any graph with time on the x-axis) and fluid “duration” (the felt experience of time).

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  1. Pingback: Choosing Your Narrative Style | Seventeen 20

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