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.