I seem to be running a spate of second person stories. The received wisdom is that you shouldn’t use it. Its rarity in fiction will make your story seem artificial and gimmicky, yet at the same time it’s the most intimate of the perspectives. Readers are by this point accustomed to reading books starring ‘I’ and accepting this ‘I’ is different from themselves. But a story that keeps referring to ‘you’ feels like the author is ordering the reader to do these things, to say these words on the page.
Which is why, if you find a teacher that actually deals with the second person beyond a blanket rejection of the form, you will often be advised that the ‘you’ be an everyman, to be more of an observer than a doer, to be as relatable to the reader (whoever they happen to be) as possible.
Now, this advice isn’t a universal; there are entire novels that are in the second person, like Charles Stross’ Rule 34 or the Choose Your Own Adventure or the Fighting Fantasy series. But consider the stories we’ve seen so far. Both are stories explicitly asking the reader if you have what it takes to survive in a world where zombies have taken over. The reader’s attributes do not come into play at all.
Which is all a long-winded introduction to me noticing that today’s story is also in the second person. It’s short and sweet, or as sweet as a Chuck Palahniuk story ever gets. And it’s all about you sitting on a bus, looking at a girl who’s sitting right behind you the third time this month (it can’t be chance), and speculating about what she’s like.
At first you’re merely deriving her character from the way she carries and dresses herself, an independent and cynical iconoclast. She’s not a big fan of daylight. She should never be seen in color. By day, she’s a grainy black and white image: a discarded blow-up doll of a back-up singer from a heavy-metal music video. At night she’s a fourth-generation photocopy of a Margaret Bourke-White photo luridly animated to Euro-pop dance music. She’ll never live long enough to become sepia-toned.
And, bit by bit, the speculation continues. Even if you did meet her, Audrey would never marry you. She would probably consent to date you, for the contrast. And you keep speculating about the ensuing relationship, how your friends will hate her and your parents will tell you that you can do better, but you’re irrevocably bound to her because you’re head-over-heels in love; not that she’d ever show nearly the same affection in return. By the end you’ve almost forgotten you’re merely fantasizing because you’re too caught up in your extrapolation of what a relationship would really entail.
And because it’s happening to you – yes, you – your everyday fantasy gone horribly wrong is all the more vividly absurd. It’s effective and told in Palahniuk’s crisp idiosyncratic style, and has an amusing twist in its tail. As he says in the afterward, the author “takes almost nothing seriously – especially writing.”
Chuck Palahniuk was my sixth week teacher at Clarion West 2012, and this post is part of the 2013 Write-a-thon. See here for more details.
Negative Reinforcement by Chuck Palahniuk
Availability: free online
Word count: 1,200
First published: Modern Short Stories literary journal, 1990
Where to find it: It is available from Palahniuk’s website here