you you you: junot diaz, second person narration, etc…
Just read Junot Diaz’s latest story (behind a paywall, unfortunately) in the New Yorker, called “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” Not all that impressive is the long and short of it. Postures as a true story about fucking up a relationship by fucking lots and lots of other women, and then not getting over that all that well until the narrator realises that he can write about it all. OK.
But it did make me think about something interesting. As in other works, Diaz uses the second person here – the entire story is addressed to a “you.” Of course, there are infamous problems with the second person – above all, it forces an intimacy on the reader that the reader may not want to or be capable of sharing. As Emily Gould tweeted about the story and its mode of narration, quite rightly, “like, no, bro, I definitely didn’t treat a lot of women like shit or think it was ok in the end bc it turned out 2 be grist for the ol’ mill.”
I definitely don’t mean some sort of lapse into utter perversity, a sort of tutoyering Patrick Batemanism: “As you slide your hand into the cranial cavity, you feel the still unextinguished warmth of the head amidst the soft smoosh of the grey matter between your fingers.” (For now, I’ll refrain from giving you a bit of Fifty Shades in the second person…) You are a Nazi prison guard, you are a 19th-century courtesan, you are Laura Bush. Whatever. That’d just be dumbly obvious.
But it does seem to me that there is something to be done with this form. Rather than the obvious forms of alienation-in-proximity that I just described, I mean something more indirect, uncanny, and at-one-remove. Something akin to the forced identification that Flaubert pioneered with the style indirect libre. In Bovary, we read a novel whose discourse forces proximity on us: we can’t tell where the narrator stops and Emma’s subjectivity takes over control of the contents of the prose. But it’s not simply that we’re presumed to be exactly like Emma Bovary. Rather, we are related to her by implication: we are reading a romance novel, just as she is informed or even wholly composed of the same sort of genre fiction. We may not be adulteresses, but we are necessarily, like her, readers of novels about adultery.
I wonder how one might go about this. The best thought that I’ve had so far – and it definitely comes of reading the Diaz piece tonight, is something like an ur-New Yorker story written in address to the demographic that generally reads the New Yorker. But it’d have to be mighty clever to be good. I’m not talking about any obvious stuff like “As you sip your chardonnay at the Hamptons beach house, flipping through the latest from Malcolm Gladwell, a strange and unsettling thought enters your mind about Renata, the German au pair you just had coptered in for the weekend, and her firm body, so unlike that of your aging, yet still assuredly beautiful, wife…”
(Or what the hell – maybe that’d work just fine. Who knows…. Am I over-complicating? It wouldn’t be the first time…)