I was once in a writing workshop in the mid 1980s, and a fellow writer handed in a story written in the second person. It wasn’t a bad story (it wasn’t a great one either), but some of the students admitted that they had refused to read past the first paragraph because of that second person voice. The writer’s response was to stand (he was an imposing six foot four) and throw his chair/desk across the room, where it smashed against the wall. “You’re all a bunch of fucking idiots!” he yelled.
That was my first experience in seeing how some people react to second person as a POV choice—they simply hate it too much to even bother reading. It also taught me not to offend people who looked liable to throw desks.
In those days some very successful books used the second person—the two I remember best were Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and a few of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s, Self Help—and professors and critics seemed to take note. Moore’s “How to Be An Other Woman” (an amazing story that is told in second person) and McInerney’s novel made a huge impression on me.
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I never used second person in my own writing, however, until I wrote my memoir Liar. As Moore and McInerney had, I also chose the present tense to tell the story. There’s something about second person and present tense that just go together. There’s an immediacy you can get from first person present tense, but in the second person the reader is placed into the narrative in entirely a different way. Second person also makes the reader complicit in the narrative’s action, while simultaneously reminding us throughout that we are reading a story—a construction. It calls attention to the nuts and bolts of the prose.
This is probably maybe why some people bristle at the mere sight of a second person narrative. It looks weird. It is weird. It calls blatant attention to the text having an author who has made an unusual choice.
So why use it in Liar? Well, other than all the benefits just mentioned, it also grew naturally from the very purpose of the project—a kind of attempt to recover memory before it’s lost for good. I hadn’t realized it at first, but as I went along, the book started to seem like me writing notes to my future self, sort of personal time capsule. And given that the book is in some ways a story about the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, the second person struck me as a good way to magnify that distance in time between the narrator (me) and his object (also me).
Perhaps not unrelated, it’s also been said that second person is a first person that feels ashamed of itself. That notion was behind a lot of my decision to employ it in Liar. Using second person helped me, as a writer, unearth and engage in scenes that might have been much more difficult to write in first person. It gave me a narrative distance that allowed me to better tell the truth, no matter how naked or embarrassing it might be.
In the end, I think it worked. I hope it did, because even though I’d hate to think people would stop reading after the first paragraph because of the second person, I’m certainly not going to start throwing desks over it.
About Liar: When acclaimed novelist Rob Roberge learns that he’s likely to have developed a progressive memory-eroding disease from years of hard living and frequent concussions, he is terrified by the prospect of becoming a walking shadow. In a desperate attempt to preserve his identity, he sets out to (somewhat faithfully) record the most formative moments of his life—ranging from the brutal murder of his childhood girlfriend, to a diagnosis of rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, to opening for famed indie band Yo La Tengo at The Fillmore in San Francisco. But the process of trying to remember his past only exposes just how fragile the stories that lay at the heart of our self-conception really are.
As Liar twists and turns through Roberge’s life, it turns the familiar story of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll on its head. Darkly funny and brutally frank, it offers a remarkable portrait of a down and out existence cobbled together across the country, from musicians’ crashpads around Boston, to seedy bars popular with sideshow freaks in Florida, to a painful moment of reckoning in the scorched Wonder Valley desert of California. As Roberge struggles to keep addiction and mental illness from destroying the good life he has built in his better moments, he is forced to acknowledge the increasingly blurred line between the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves.