Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"...you think that you will never make it home."

Bright Lights, Big City is written in the second person, present tense. Both times I've read it, I found this jarring and distracting for about the first fifty pages. From that point on, the technique steadily develops power until, by the end of the book, I'm convinced it couldn't have been as good-- anywhere near as good-- if it had been written in the first or third person.

The first time I read it, about ten years ago, I discussed the second-person narration with some people who had been assigned the book in college. Their view was that it is a powerful technique because it invites the reader to identify more closely than usual with the narrator. "You put yourself in the story," or something. That is just obviously wrong. It doesn't even make sense on its face-- the first person literally invites the reader into the mind of the narrator. You can't get closer to the narrator, or to the events of a story, than the first person.

The most familiar use of the second person, for those of us who grew up in the 80s, is the Choose Your Own Adventure series. In those books, the second person really is an invitation to readers to imagine these events happening to them. This works because the Choose Your Own Adventure books don't characterize their protagonists. The whole point is for kids to imagine themselves experiencing an adventure.

That is not the case with Bright Lights, Big City. McInerney's narrator is characterized in detail. I know what clothes he likes (and they aren't the same clothes I like). He spends most of the book seeking or snorting cocaine (and I've never tried cocaine). He's younger than I am, he's more emotionally frayed than I am, he works a job I've never had. I understand the ambivalence he feels toward Tad Allagash, even though I am not ambivalent: I loathe the guy.

So the narrator is not a blank on which I am supposed to project myself. And the choice of the second person is distancing, at least relative to the first or limited-third person. Why is it, in this case, so powerful?

Stacey Richter has a short story in the second person, "The Land of Pain," and it is excellent. It includes a digression about the second person that I think answers the question. Richter's story is about a woman suffering from chronic pain, who is raising a brainless clone of herself that, she hopes, will eventually provide her with a new, pain-free body.
You take your medicine and sack out in front of the television (which you can only really watch when you manage to nudge the pirouetting brainless clone into a corner). Now is the hour when citizens on talk shows tell their tragic stories in the second person, saying you you you about all the bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences in their lives ("You just feel so betrayed when you see that little panda pulling a gun") as though they have a genetic defect that prevents them from using the pronoun "I." This is sloppy and angers the grammar and usage thug in you. You've concluded that citizens telling their tales of adversity find the second person compelling because "you" is impersonal and removed, yet somehow includes everyone in its scope ("It could be you staring down the barrel at that panda bear next, sweetheart!") whereas "I" is an orphaned baby doe blinking in a dark forest.

"You are aways in pain," for example, is a more manageable utterance than the direct, final, "I am always in pain."

At nightfall, you can't find the assistive animal anywhere. Finally, you locate her curled up in the cage with the brainless clone, nose tucked under her tail. They adore each other. And you, you my friend, are filled with jealousy.
Yes! The second person is powerful because it is impersonal and removed. It is a pattern of speech characteristic of people who are in the process of struggling (and as yet failing) to digest, to accept "all the bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences in their lives." As I get deeper into Bright Lights, Big City, the choice of the second person starts to read less like youthful flamboyance from McInerney and more like a coping mechanism of the narrator's. Long before we start to understand just what bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences have messed up our narrator, we start to develop the visceral, dreadful sense that he's in real pain. That's the second person in action.

(Richter also helps explain why the second person is usually paired with the present tense. It's present pain, not remembered pain, that forces people into the shelter of you you you.)


  1. Oh! Oh! Oh! I was so thrilled to read this:

    It is a pattern of speech characteristic of people who are in the process of struggling (and as yet failing) to digest, to accept "all the bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences in their lives."

    All of it, really. I have SUCH a problem with that. I noticed it first and mostly when I was watching the 7-Up documentary series. It makes me so irritated and uncomfortable and frustrated that it's SO common for people to describe their personal experiences with that phrasing. I notice it all the time now, and it bothers the heck out of me.

    I've only ever tried to read one book in the second person, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, the Tom Robbins book. I hated it, I couldn't get past the first few pages. I appreciate you describing so succinctly and accurately what I hate about it in regular conversation, but I'm not sure that gives me the will to overcome my distaste for it in literature.

    Either way, though, I loved reading this. I rant about it often and I've never had anyone else pinpoint it so well.

    I should at the very least read that short story, I suppose!

    1. I tend to get irritated by that usage in conversation, too. "What do you mean, 'you,' you jackass?" I think I'll try to cultivate a little more patience, now that I understand it's sometimes symptomatic of an inability to accept their experiences as their own. But for the people for whom the second person is just some kind of quirk or affectation... yargh! Get off my lawn.

      I hope you try _Bright Lights_! It sounds like you hate the 2nd person even more than I do, and I'm curious to hear if it ends up working for you as powerfully as it did for me. I think the last two chapters are amazing.

      The Stacey Richter story is in her second collection, _Twin Study_, and it isn't the only good story in there.