Second Person, Second Post

Roderic Crooks’Fuckbuddy,” a finalist for the Million Writers Award published in Eyeshot, was on my own short list when I read nominees. The basic story is of the main character’s regret at how he treated an old lover, and the combination of manipulation and tenderness that seems poised to rekindle the romance. What works for me is that it’s sincere and heartfelt without being sappy, and the characters are all fully realized.

The story’s written in second person, and I think it’s a great example of the second person confessional tone I’ve written about in the past:

It’s more of the “you” that substitutes for an “I” in certain types of conversations. It’s used for statements like: “You know how sometimes you’re just angry at people who don’t deserve it.” But what I really mean is, “Sometimes, I’m mad at you when you don’t deserve it, and I’m sorry, but too afraid to say so.” It is a “you” that signifies a frightened “I,” and so contains a plea for identification, an upfront assumption that you and I participate in exactly the same sins.

The tense in this story calls upon the reader to identify, to admit that she, too, has treated lovers that way, or has considered it, or could see herself doing the same:

When he finally worked up the nerve to ask if he was your boyfriend or not, you had already prepared a little speech. You told him you weren’t ready and that it was you, your problem, but you didn’t mean it. Really, after you tallied up his pros and cons, you just figured you could do better. It thrilled you to see the disappointment on his face, the recognition that he had been nothing but a form of entertainment, a hobby you took up and were ready to put down. You don’t even remember when he stopped coming around.

I do connect to this. The story nails the description of the sick feeling that comes weeks or months later, once it’s clear it was a mistake to spurn the lover this way. I have no trouble connecting with the second person narrator in this paragraph and many others like it. I did notice, however, that the first line throws me every time I read it:

Pretend it’s late in March, 2002. And you’re gay.

I understand that the story is about gay men, and that the tense is asking me to pretend this way. Making it explicit didn’t work for me, though. Calling me “you” slides me right into this state of pretending. This first line, on the other hand, serves to emphasize to me that it’s not 2002, and I’m not a gay man. I think this emphasizes the pitfall of the second person tense–if the reader is somehow made to feel that “you” doesn’t apply to her, there’s trouble.

I have a story, as yet unpublished, written in second person, that starts with the line:

The night you almost divorced your husband, you slipped out of bed while he slept and walked down the street to make phone calls.

Along with a rejection slip, I received a comment from an editor saying that he was a man, didn’t have a husband, and was thrown by the second person. This story, which is about an incident that makes the narrator feel ashamed, was my attempt to hit the second person confessional. Up front, however, I’ve told half the population that the story isn’t actually about “you.”

How do stories like Laura Madeline Wiseman’s “How to Measure Your Breast Size” pull it off (when she’s clearly speaking to half the population herself)? Not sure.

The first time I read “Fuckbuddy,” the story that followed the first couple of paragraphs was a pleasant surprise, and I’m glad I kept reading. I think the second person walks a very fine line, however, between inviting the reader in and alienating her.

P.S. I’m trying to get reviews posted on all the Million Writers Award finalists before voting ends, which is coming up very soon. My Thoughtcrime Experiments series, which still isn’t done, is on hold for the moment because of the deadline on the Million Writers Award. I may post a few “bonus” reviews in order to get through everything in time.

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3 responses to “Second Person, Second Post

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review. I agree with you about the difficulties of the second person, but in this case, I had no choice but to confront them head on. I wanted to talk about a lingering feeling of grief or regret, but the first thing that came to me was the opening. The whole story was all of a piece. I thought the easiest and best thing to do was to directly invite the reader to play along, and then she could join in or take off as she saw fit.

  2. Roderic, thanks so much for visiting, and congratulations!

  3. Pingback: Million Writers Award Winners Announced « Words, Words, Words

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