Second person?

I am enjoying Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White very much — thanks to all of you who recommended it! It’s quite long, 900 pages, but the pages fly by. Long books that fly by are their own particular sort of pleasure, aren’t they? Absorbing, fun stories that you can spend hours with and that seem never to end.

I’m not sure what I think, though, of the author’s use of second person. Those of you who have read the book before, did you like it? Here is how the book begins:

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

The narrator goes on like this for a while, leading “you,” the reader, through the city to the room where the story itself begins. He (I’ll just assume the narrator is “he”) talks to the reader about the reader’s expectations of the setting and time period, and then introduces the characters and gives information on their relative importance. Once the story is underway, the narrator interrupts now and then to keep up this “conversation” with the reader, making little jokes and anticipating what the reader’s reactions will be. For example:

(What? Sugar? Why are you thinking about Sugar? Don’t worry about her anymore; she’s spoken for! And also try to put William from your mind. Everything is in hand I assure you.)

One advantage of this technique is that it allows the author to address the fact directly that this is historical fiction and that we as 21st century readers are trying to work our way imaginatively into a world that is long gone — so there’s no pretending this is a 19C novel or that 19C people could have read it. Why not just acknowledge that this is a 21C version of a 19C novel?

It also gives the author the chance to prepare the reader for what’s coming and to give the reader clues as to how to read the book, and it gives the book a lighter tone than it might otherwise have. It’s also a clever updating of those 19C third person omniscient narrators (and 18C ones) who were powerful presences in many novels and who were characters in and of themselves.

I get all this, and yet I also find this use of second person just a tad silly.

Have you come across writers who use the second person? Who use it successfully? I know such things exist, but I can’t think of many examples.

10 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

10 responses to “Second person?

  1. I have come across the use of second person in a short story from time to time but never for sustained periods in a novel. It is a bit jarring and dangerous I think because the reader can always claim that they are not the “you” being addressed by the author and the whole thing is ruined.

  2. The dreaded second-person. I find it nearly never works. The most difficult to write, I would think, though I don’t know that.

  3. It’s what made me put down Calvino’s err…On a Winter’s Night Travel or whatever it’s called; that and the car salesman tone. A writer has to make me adore her books first before she can get away with that.

  4. I can’t get on with this style either. I started to read that Calvino book and got really fed up with it.

  5. It must not have bothered me with Crimson, as I enjoyed it despite the extra narrator. I don’t think I always consciously make note of narrators/or what person a book is written in when I am reading unless I find they bother me (I should probably be more observant!). That said I think The Little Children by Perrotta must have had the second narrator. I didn’t read the book, but I saw the movie. There would be a voice talking about the characters and then you would see the interactions between the characters. I didn’t like the voice at all. I’m assuming he must have used it in the book? Or maybe they just added it when filming. Strangely at some point in the movie it seemed to stop or lessen, which made me happy as I found it irritating. I’m guessing this must be the same thing?

  6. hepzibah

    Yes– I don’t really like the use of the second person either, I rarely use it in my own writing, and I just don’t like the ring of the way the words sound with it, and for some reason I don’t think it works very well, but that’s just me…

  7. Aside from Calvino’s, the most famous use of second-person narration is probably Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

  8. Stefanie, I think you’re right — it’s a good excuse for a reader to say “this novel isn’t for me” if they feel the writer isn’t speaking to them. I will say, though, that the second person sections aren’t that long in Faber’s novel. Melanie — I’m having trouble imagining how I would write something in the second person! It does seem that it would be the hardest to write. Imani — ah, now, I’d forgotten the Calvino, which I read a while back. The “car salesman tone”! That’s great. BooksPlease, that’s interesting; I liked the Calvino well enough, although I didn’t love it as I’ve heard other people do — I thought the concept was interesting. Danielle, I haven’t seen the movie, but I bet I wouldn’t like that either! I listened to the novel on CD, and I don’t remember any voice like that (although I may just be forgetting). For the most part the narrator in Faber is okay, it just stands out awkwardly for me. Hepzibah, I think it doesn’t work for a lot of people or it would be more popular … interesting though, when people try. Dan, thank you; perhaps I should take a look at the McInerney to see what I think …

  9. Dorothy–It may very well been a film thing they did that had nothing to do with the book. The movie was interesting, but I doubt I will ever get around to reading the book now.

  10. SFP

    I like second person that reads as if the narrator is telling the story to himself while it’s all still so raw and immediate that he can’t quite take responsibility enough to say “I did this”–it’s still in the “you did this” stage in his mind.

    Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying is a prime example of second person that’s well done and, as Dan said above, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.

    Ella writes second person well, too.

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