David Foster Wallace, “Forever Overhead”
By starting off with ‘Happy Birthday’ – yes, Birthday is capitalized, not sure why – the second person story is initially disguised as what they used to call in my undergraduate fiction course an “apostrophe,” though I’ve since abandoned such usage – although it remains the primary definition in Merriam-Webster’s online treatment of the word, the direct address of an absent party, with the mark of punctuation coming in second – but apart from the second iteration of Happy Birthday and the closing line (spoiler), 'Hello,’ the rest of the story feels not as if there is a distinct line dividing speaker and speakee. It instead becomes, merely and fantastically, the rest of the story. Its goal is the same as any character-driven first or third, which is to give us the most poignant and intriguing access to a character in a situation that presses them to reveal their most human side. But first person can rarely (and most often should not even try to) accomplish this by making the narrator disappear, and the convention of third person is so accepted as a storytelling device that it can most easily of the three disappear, but when you think about it, that narrator should have the most presence, given that it is separating itself completely from the story, acknowledging that this is a voice in the wind, telling tales.
To be brief, this story is the reason why I love second person. Or rather, it exemplifies the effect second person can have. It takes advantage of the first person ability to get involved in the story and the third person convention of separation, which gives the narrative voice the ability to entrancingly render the mountains on the distant horizon as “jagged, their tops, sharp angles darkening into definition against a deep red tired light. Against the red their sharp connected tops form a spiked line, an EKG of the dying day.” Is this description in the realm of plausibility of this thirteen-year-old? Possibly, but unlikely. Could it happen in first person? Again, it’s not impossible, but far more likely with some temporal remove invested into the tale, and this is a real-time thing. This is a third person trick that second person allows to happen.
Nor does this story fall victim to the senseless imperative that second person often invites, and critics of second person often necessitate. Why do it unless you can tell your character to go do things? Well, I just told you, but if that’s not enough and you demand imperatives to make this POV valid, DFW has them. But he sagely saves them for when the character needs a kick in the pants. Apart from what could be considered imperative in the (have a) Happy Birthday, he only uses it to first get the boy out of the pool and then command him how to behave in an uncertain situation. But the imperatives seem to come from the boy himself, rooted in a thought process he’s already had but has to remind himself of: “Forget your towel. Stopping for the towel means talking and talking means thinking. You have decided being scared is caused mostly by thinking. Go right by…”
Which is a little different tactic than that taken by
Stuart O'Nan, “A Prayer For the Dying”
(It’s bugging me that the heading I picked automatically italicizes the title, so I’m putting book titles in quotation marks, same as the short stories, because I don’t want to take the time to look up the HTML code that would fix this. So, sorry about that, if it was bugging you, too.)
Stuart O'Nan doesn’t ever futz around with what form he’s working in, which is respectable. This is straight second person, to the bone, and quite deeply entrenched in the thought process of its protagonist, as evidenced by the frequent questions the narrator asks himself and the willingness to throw in unstructured sentences, exploratory, meandering sentences, when it feels natural. “Blue veins twine around the pipe of her throat. Thrush. A bird. The Winnebago say the owl is a messenger of death.”
A lot of the prose is tack-sharp like that, using verbs like “twine” and such, but it feels apropos to this character. The only thing that breaks the fourth wall (or whatever) for me is when he throws an imperative sentence into the mix for what I can discern to be no reason other than sentence variety, which acknowledges the reader pretty plainly, or worse, because this is second person and he’s supposed to, which acknowledges the worst kind of reader.
The first half of the book is great, the second half had some predictability issues in it for me, and more frequent occasions of imperative-for-imperative’s-sake. Overall, I give it a B, B minus.