Tag Archives: second person

Stretching

I’ve been reading the excellent new run of Demo, comics by Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan. If you are at all interested in comics, you should be reading these. They’re a series of standalone stories, so each week’s issue is self-contained. They have some supernatural element, but so far it’s been slight–the sort of supernatural element that you could chalk up to imbalanced perceptions on the part of the narrator.

This week’s issue of Demo, called “Pangs,” was the best read of my week by far. It’s a story about a cannibal, and at some point I’m going to have to go through it panel by panel to figure out how the creators achieve the effect that they do. They don’t pull punches on the horror of cannibalism. It’s awful, and I spent the whole comic terrified of what the main character was about to do to himself or the people around him. On the other hand, they create so much sympathy for him that I wanted him to succeed, to be all right, to find a way to get away with it.

For one thing, this comic has excellent use of the second person. In the past, I’ve written on the confessional power of this tense:

“But as the reader gets more deeply into these stories, it becomes clear that the “you” isn’t really instructional. 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.”

I stared in awe at the power of lines such as, “You realize it’s no good. You just can’t eat anything else…”

But before I go off completely on a rant about this particular issue, I also want to point to the other thing I find fascinating about Demo. Both Wood and Cloonan have included material in the back of each issue about how they stretch themselves for this series, playing with different concepts and different ways of telling stories. This material provides a shining example of the benefits of experimenting with style and genre.

Here’s something Cloonan wrote in the back of issue 1:

“Back when we started, I was actually surprised by how much Brian trusted me. I barely trusted myself–I had what I could only describe as stage fright, which I guess is a weird feeling to get while drawing, but as the issues went on (I’ll be the first to admit some more successfully than others), I came into a sort of sense of self about my art. For the first few issues I felt schizophrenic, but then I realized that all of this, all of DEMO was just aspects of me, and of Brian, and together the issues became more than just a sum of their parts.”

I think that’s beautiful, and I’ve experienced that feeling of stage fright when I have an idea that I like but am not sure I can pull off. Go read these.

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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.