Wednesday, 11 February 2009

You Talkin’ to Me?

You are reading a novel, watching the characters and their actions, sometimes privy to their thoughts, empathizing, sympathizing, and enjoying the pretense, and then unexpectedly, you, the reader, are noticed by the narrator. You are spoken to. I remember the first time I read Denis Diderot’s Jack the Fatalist and His Master, written some time during the 1770’s. The piece starts like this: “How did they meet? By chance, like everybody else. What were their names? What do you care?” The narrator addresses the reader again a page later, “You see, reader, I’m well on my way here, and it is completely up to me whether I make you wait one year, two years, three years, for the story of Jack’s loves…” I thought, “Hey, you’re not supposed to see me! Let’s just get on with the story!”

Kendall Walton suggests that the inability of the reader to act within the story is part of the power of the work of art: “The convention that prevents Harry… from leaping to the defense of a damsel in distress may result in his reflecting more deeply on her predicament; he does not interrupt his reflections to intervene, nor do worries about whether he should (fictionally) intervene intrude. Since the game is such that it cannot be fictional that he intervenes, it is likely to involve a richer collection of fictional truths about his thoughts and feelings.” It could be, then, that by calling attention to the reader’s presence by direct address the narrator causes her to feel obliged, if not actually to take action, at least to feel as if she should take action. If Walton is right, when the narrator addresses the reader, she may impede the development of the reader’s reflections and alter the depth and quality of feelings she would otherwise have experienced.

If this were the case, though, how are we to respond to entire fictional narratives written in the second person? “You asked the baker for the almond croissant, your favorite, but he gave you the plain one.” Or “You have just glanced out the window and noticed that the engine is engulfed in flames. You scream but no sound is forthcoming.” Will the reader reflect more, or less, deeply on what is fictionally her own predicament and not that of another fictional character? Will she empathize with her fictional self as convincingly as she would with other fictional others? In my experiences of reading novels in the second person, I start thinking of the “you” as someone other than me, almost as if “you” were a name for a third person. Even with such an unintentional shifting of the referent of the “you,” I remember not engaging emotionally very well with this “you” character.

But what if, instead of finding oneself as a reader inscribed in a fictional narrative as “you” or as “reader,” one found oneself addressed directly, by first name, by a narrator? This is just the sort of completely original (to my knowledge) way of presenting fictional narrative that Marie Laberge, prize-winning novelist and playwright from Québec, is now employing in her project, entitled Des nouvelles de Martha [Martha’s News]. Laberge presents an epistolary novel in installments sent out to subscribers via conventional post. Subscribers receive 26 letters (in French) across a twelve-month period (January to December of 2009), from her narrator Martha. In a recent (January 22) radio interview with Radio Canada’s Christiane Charette, Laberge explained that each letter of three or four pages will begin with Martha greeting her subscriber by first name. Then, Martha, a woman with grown children and young grandchildren, who is making some important realizations about herself and her life, will present the world from her perspective. Two different letters will be created for each mail-out, one for female readers and one for male readers, although the essentials narrated will be the same. Laberge has already received subscription orders from approximately 36,500 readers from around the world, of whom about three quarters are women, and one quarter men. At present, Laberge has not decided whether the collected letters will later be published as a novel. Those interested in the project or in subscribing to receive Martha’s news should check out Laberge’s website, The deadline for subscribing is soon: March 1, 2009.

How might reader response be influenced by this unique method of narrative presentation? First, we may be less likely to believe that the narrative is unraveling toward a conclusion already known and recorded by the author – and this is so whether or not Laberge has the plot planned out. When one reads a novel in book form, even an epistolary novel, one can flip to the end and read the end of the story at will. Not so in this case. And if I believe that the author does not know what is going to happen, I, as the reader, may experience more or less thoughts, feelings and memories than I otherwise would have. Second, there is that personal address at the beginning of each installment of Martha’s story. How might it influence empathy and sympathy for Martha and her family and friends? How might it influence the degree to which readers experience other emotions and memories associated with the narrative? Will readers experience more insight or less when reading a novel presented in this way? Kudos to Laberge for offering readers the chance to find out.

Denis Diderot (1951/1773-1775). Oeuvres. André Billy, Ed. Paris: Gallimard, p. 475. The translation is mine.

Kendall Walton (1990). Mimesis as make-believe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 228.


Ronnie de Sousa said...

The one Second-Person novel I've read is Michel Butor's La Modification (I think it has been translated as "The change of heart".)  It made Butor famous; at the time he was my high school geography teacher.  I read it at the time and thought it was brilliant, though I've never got very far with any of his other novels. The "Vous" was the protagonist, however, not the reader, and what I found so interesting is that it alternately gave a feeling of distance and of great intimacy; I interpret this as as effect of a shift, depending on context, in the reader's own identification either with the narrator, who might be detached or critical of the protagonist, or on the contrary with the protagonist himself, in which case the reader feels that he is being personally addressed AS the character.
I am very tempted to subscribe to the Epistolary Novel of Marie Laberge. Have you done so? It's a great idea, as you say, but you don't actually say whether it's any GOOD...

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

Thanks very much for your comments, Ronnie, and my apologies for a late response. In my reading of Butor’s "La modification" years ago, I read the “vous” as the reader until the last pages where, if I remember correctly, the protagonist was named as “Léon Dumont”. After I read your comments, I did a bit of research on responses to this novel. It seems that this is THE second-person fictional narrative of the past century. Most commentators on the concept discuss it. As for the referent of the “vous,” some readers think the narrator is talking to himself. This seems strange to me as I would think one would use the “tu” form of address toward oneself, rather than “vous.” Others think the “vous” is in reference to the reader. This reading makes sense to me, I think, because there is no clue before the last pages of the novel (again, if my memory is accurate here), that “vous” does not refer to the reader. The author of the introduction to Michel Butor’s 1989 work "Frontiers" reads the “vous” in this way. Still others read the “vous” as a close equivalent of the “vous” of a travel guide. Others read the “vous” as uttered by a narrator of a protagonist, as you do.
No matter which “vous” the reader believes herself to be engaging while reading, most critics seem to agree that the second person is so strange for readers that they do experience some kind of shifting of identification, such as the type you mention. It seems that there are two camps on this issue of shifting: some readers think it enriches the reading and others think it is too little aesthetic pay off for the effort. For Mieke Bal in her 1985 book on narratology, the “you” shifts too readily into “I” in the reader’s experience of the narrative. My experience of the second person in this novel is similar, except the “you” morphs into either “she” or “he” in my mind, depending on the sex of the protagonist. I certainly appreciate your point, though, that viewing the protagonist from the narrator’s perspective and the reader viewing himself as if he were the character could create interesting emotional responses. It would be great to see published more second-person narratives, especially of the quality of Butor’s. A variety of characters, settings, and themes explored using the second person would give anyone interested in empirical research on the question of aesthetic response to the second person more data to work with. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were some aesthetic effects that could only be experienced in reading second-person narratives?

Paul Lamb said...

Would not the serialized novels of the Victorian era have given a similar experience to the readers of that time?

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

Thanks for your comment, Paul. I think you're right. This restriction of not being able to continue reading until the next installment arrives is an interesting one. I should think it would heighten the reader's interest and likelihood of discussing the most recent installment with other readers.

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