23 October 2009

Everybody likes you.

Over at Spike, Jess has mounted a spirited defence of the second person point of view. It's a POV that does tend to divide opinion, and if maintained for a whole novel can drive the reader to throw the book across the room, but used sparingly it can be a very powerful device.

I was definitely disconcerted the first time I opened a novel written in the second person. It was a male character and as a female reader I was confronted, and simultaneously drawn in. The book was Snake by Kate Jennings.

Snake is not written entirely in second person, but that's how it begins (and ends) and consequently it insists we inhabit the role of the character, Rex. We are bound to him. So we are immediately thrust into a major theme of the novel: disappointment - the failure to fulfil desires or expectations.

The first chapter opens:
"Everybody likes you. A good man. Decent. But disappointed. Who wouldn't be? That wife. Those children."
And Snake prepares us early. You know what you are in for.
The first chapter ends:
"Every reason to be disappointed, although that word implies expectations, and you never had many of them."
This is not simply disappointment. This is an absence of hope. This is despair. And the second person narration drenches us in disenchantment.

And when it hits the mark for a reader, second person hits hard. The second chapter begins:
"You grew up on a farm, a thousand acres of chalky soil, a rainfall to break the strongest spirit. The days always began with your father, shoulders hunched against the half-light of dawn, trekking across the yard, past the clothesline, to the rainfall gauge."
I grew up on a farm. The days began with my father at dawn. The rain gauge was an object of worship.

Jennings captured a part my life here. Her use of second-person connected me to the book in a way I had never been connected before, and in response I found myself whispering: "Yes".

The second-person parts (One and Four) are short, and this judicious use is extremely effective. It is such a relief to shrug off Rex's despair and settle in to a more conventional narrative.

Not that the despair is ever entirely shrugged off. Snake is a small-town book. It traces the lives of Rex, a farmer seeking the simple pleasures of farming life, and Irene, a woman plagued by discontent and dreams of escape. It is not a good match. It is an anxious, despairing tale, but beautifully written and enhanced by being book-ended by a second-person narrator.

It remains on my list of all-time favourite novels.


Misrule said...

Awesome! Thanks for this post. May I steal it, with full attribution, for my creative writing students?

thaliak said...

Hey - interesting post.

I thought I was very clever at uni when I wrote a story in second person... in that case 'you' was the narrator's mum. I wish I could have done the idea justice.

Thanks for showing how 'you' can be such an intense form of 'me'.