Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"...you think that you will never make it home."

Bright Lights, Big City is written in the second person, present tense. Both times I've read it, I found this jarring and distracting for about the first fifty pages. From that point on, the technique steadily develops power until, by the end of the book, I'm convinced it couldn't have been as good-- anywhere near as good-- if it had been written in the first or third person.

The first time I read it, about ten years ago, I discussed the second-person narration with some people who had been assigned the book in college. Their view was that it is a powerful technique because it invites the reader to identify more closely than usual with the narrator. "You put yourself in the story," or something. That is just obviously wrong. It doesn't even make sense on its face-- the first person literally invites the reader into the mind of the narrator. You can't get closer to the narrator, or to the events of a story, than the first person.

The most familiar use of the second person, for those of us who grew up in the 80s, is the Choose Your Own Adventure series. In those books, the second person really is an invitation to readers to imagine these events happening to them. This works because the Choose Your Own Adventure books don't characterize their protagonists. The whole point is for kids to imagine themselves experiencing an adventure.

That is not the case with Bright Lights, Big City. McInerney's narrator is characterized in detail. I know what clothes he likes (and they aren't the same clothes I like). He spends most of the book seeking or snorting cocaine (and I've never tried cocaine). He's younger than I am, he's more emotionally frayed than I am, he works a job I've never had. I understand the ambivalence he feels toward Tad Allagash, even though I am not ambivalent: I loathe the guy.

So the narrator is not a blank on which I am supposed to project myself. And the choice of the second person is distancing, at least relative to the first or limited-third person. Why is it, in this case, so powerful?

Stacey Richter has a short story in the second person, "The Land of Pain," and it is excellent. It includes a digression about the second person that I think answers the question. Richter's story is about a woman suffering from chronic pain, who is raising a brainless clone of herself that, she hopes, will eventually provide her with a new, pain-free body.
You take your medicine and sack out in front of the television (which you can only really watch when you manage to nudge the pirouetting brainless clone into a corner). Now is the hour when citizens on talk shows tell their tragic stories in the second person, saying you you you about all the bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences in their lives ("You just feel so betrayed when you see that little panda pulling a gun") as though they have a genetic defect that prevents them from using the pronoun "I." This is sloppy and angers the grammar and usage thug in you. You've concluded that citizens telling their tales of adversity find the second person compelling because "you" is impersonal and removed, yet somehow includes everyone in its scope ("It could be you staring down the barrel at that panda bear next, sweetheart!") whereas "I" is an orphaned baby doe blinking in a dark forest.

"You are aways in pain," for example, is a more manageable utterance than the direct, final, "I am always in pain."

At nightfall, you can't find the assistive animal anywhere. Finally, you locate her curled up in the cage with the brainless clone, nose tucked under her tail. They adore each other. And you, you my friend, are filled with jealousy.
Yes! The second person is powerful because it is impersonal and removed. It is a pattern of speech characteristic of people who are in the process of struggling (and as yet failing) to digest, to accept "all the bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences in their lives." As I get deeper into Bright Lights, Big City, the choice of the second person starts to read less like youthful flamboyance from McInerney and more like a coping mechanism of the narrator's. Long before we start to understand just what bad, traumatic, unfortunate experiences have messed up our narrator, we start to develop the visceral, dreadful sense that he's in real pain. That's the second person in action.

(Richter also helps explain why the second person is usually paired with the present tense. It's present pain, not remembered pain, that forces people into the shelter of you you you.)

Thursday, March 8, 2012

What is it like to be a coke-addled bat?

My limited experience discussing intro-philosophy standards with fiction writers suggests that fiction writers, as a group, are especially taken by Thomas Nagel's "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" Why? I think Jay McInerney might have an answer.

I had forgotten that in Bright Lights, Big City, the main character spends a night with a philosophy grad student named Vicky. The next day he loses his job, and his (former) co-workers press him for details about how and why it happened.
"I really don't even know," you say. They're wondering: Could this happen to me? and you would like to reassure them, tell them it's just you. They're trying to imagine themselves in your shoes, but it would be a tough thing to do. Last night Vicky was talking about the ineffability of inner experience. She told you to imagine what it was like to be a bat. Even if you knew what sonar was and how it worked, you could never know what it feels like to have it, or what it feels like to be a small, furry creature hanging upside down from the roof of a cave. She said that certain facts are accessible only from one point of view-- the point of view of the creature who experiences them. You think she meant that the only shoes we can ever wear are our own. Meg can't imagine what it's like for you to be you, she can only imagine herself being you.
Interesting! If it is true that the only shoes we can wear are our own, writers should worry that the entire project of fiction is threatened. If the effort writers put into characterization is to be something other than self-delusion, then writers, at least, must think they're imagining what it is like to be someone else. And if their effort is to be valuable, they might hope that readers, too, are imagining what it is like to be the character.

I suppose there's a spectrum of possible imaginative projections. An easy imaginative projection is me imagining what it would feel like to me if I were experiencing the events of a story. (Good video games exploit the easy end of the spectrum reasonably well.)

At the hopelessly difficult end of the spectrum is Nagel's bat: no one can imagine what it feels like for a bat to be a bat.

Good fiction must fall somewhere in the middle. A lot then turns on just how much middle there is. How closely must readers and characters resemble each other before readers can imagine what it is like for the character to be that character? How closely must writers resemble their characters before they can write them well?

So Nagel's paper, of all the post-war classics in philosophy of mind, really is specially relevant to fiction writers. Neat!