Reading Like a Writer: Boy, Snow, Bird and "You"
I'm always interested in literary uses of "you" because I love the slipperiness of the second person, the way it can slide from one meaning to another. "You" can be a direct address to the reader, or it can be a specific fictional character that is addressed. Colloquially, "you" is often used to mean "one." And "one," of course, can be a roundabout way of saying "I." A deft writer can make use of these separate meanings, transitioning skillfully from one to another.
I find a useful illustration of that skill in Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a fairy tale retold, but it's also a new fairy tale with lots of other fairy tales mingling inside it. It's about a black family who passes, mostly, for white and the betrayals, guilt, and heartache that result.
One of the main characters, Boy, is a woman who runs away from her abusive father to start a new life in a small New England town. The novel begins with Boy as a first-person narrator, but when she first tells of her childhood, Boy drops the use of "I" and substitutes "you."
As for character, mine developed without haste or fuss. I didn't interfere—it was all there in the mirrors. Suppose you're born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the year nineteen hundred and thirty-something. Suppose your father's a rat catcher. (Your absent mother is never discussed, to the extent that you nurse a theory that you're a case of spontaneous generation.) The interior of the house you grow up in is...
Two pages of "you" follow. When Boy finally admits that the "you" is actually her, it's in a roundabout way.
Where does character come into it? Just this: I've always been pretty sure I could kill someone if I had to. Myself, or my father—whichever option proved most practical.
So it eventually becomes clear that the "you" is actually Boy, but when I first read the passage, it doesn't seem like she's telling her own story. Rather, the "you" feels to me like "one." This is enhanced by the repeated use of "suppose you" to begin sentences. It feels like Boy is describing a hypothetical person instead of herself. Perhaps, I think, she's offering an example of another childhood so she can later compare it to her own. I keep expecting to hear how Boy's history is similar to or different from the experiences of this hypothetical other character that she describes.
Because of this feeling, the "you" separates Boy from the story she tells. This makes sense since we soon learn that she has physically separated herself from her past, moving exactly as far away as the bus will take her. Boy pulls herself away from her own history by using "you" instead of "I" to name herself.
The distancing, followed by the sudden revelation of ownership, has a particular effect on the reader. When Boy admits the story is hers, after I have learned all the gruesome details, it's more traumatic for me as a reader than it would have been if I'd known it all along. I first hear the story in an abstract sense, applying it to a hypothetical character instead of the one I know. Like Boy, I keep a bit of distance from it. Then when I realize the story is Boy's, the horror of it hits suddenly.
That's how the author plays between two ways of understanding the "you"—as a hypothetical "one" and as an indirect way of saying "I."
But the slipperiness of "you" also allows us to slide between interpreting "you" as a fictional character and interpreting it as a direct address to the reader.
"You" necessarily feels like a direct address, even when it's clearly not. When I read "you," I put myself into the position of the "you"—I can't help it—while constantly reminding myself that I'm reading it wrong, that it's not actually me. The effect is that I'm fighting off the memories as they're being related. This play with the double meaning of "you" is especially poignant in the passage because that sensation is very like the one Boy must be having as she tells this story of her past—the past she's trying so hard to shake.
Additionally, the mirroring of the different understandings of "you" feeds into the mirror motif that is present throughout the book. Characters reflect each other in fascinating ways. They also twist, contort, and disappear their doubles. After all, this is a retelling of Snow White—the magic mirror plays tricks. When I wonder if the "you" is Boy or if it's someone else, that's the mirror playing a trick. When I wonder if the "you" is addressing me or if it's someone else, that's another of the mirror's tricks.
The use of "you" in storytelling can feel like a gimmick or it can be powerful. When expertly employed, "you" can cast a magical reflection.
When have you noticed an expert use of the second person? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Flash Fiction: The Power of Brevity in a Multitasking World" this fall at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.