You trudge out to the mailbox and reach inside, hoping that the New Yorker has come. Surprise! You find that it has indeed come. You open to page 72 to read the new Richard Powers story and to your immeasurable disappointment you see that the story is written in the second person. You read the story anyway, conclude that the choice of second person is just a gimmick, as it usually is. You like some aspects of the story, although you sigh when you learn that the protagonist has cancer, because you’re permanently tired of stories about people with cancer, even though there are other elements here that might redeem the story, if only it weren’t for that damned second person.
Enough. Let me explain why I don’t like the second person. This “you” voice is really the first person in which the narrator is either addressing the reader or some other auditor (in which case, sure, second person is intimate and fine), or, more often, is really talking to him or herself (the gimmick). The “I” is merely sublimated to the “you” and the only time I buy it as being exactly the right narrative choice is where there has been some trauma that, as it were, splits the narrator in two. Now, the fact that at the end of this story the protagonist—the “you” and, I would argue, also the “I”—appears to be on her deathbed might be justification for the second person. Her dying self is looking back on her life from some distance and addressing herself as a young woman and as she grows older. So maybe it is actually justified in this case.
I still don’t like it.
The story—the narrator goes to England as a student, finds a used copy of a book that intrigues her. She tries to read it but fails. Later as she is working on her dissertation she tries again and loves the book. She becomes obsessed. She gets married, has an affair with her thesis advisor, quits her program, goes to law school, gets divorced. She concludes that her copy of the book is signed by Winston Churchill, but doesn’t get the signature verified, but still follows the obscure author’s writings and news about his work. She gets married again and has kids. She practices law. She gets sick.
Although I was drawn through this story by the fluid writing and the suspense created about the mysterious author, in the end it didn’t satisfy me, probably because I resisted the voice. You?
October 18, 2010: “To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers