There’s a reason very few books are written in the second person. It’s a difficult feat to pull off without sounding like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. The problem, of course, is that, at some point or another, the reader will stop and say, “No. That isn’t me. I didn’t do that.” And the illusion is destroyed.
For the most part, Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage Books, 1984) succeeds in the second person format, in telling the story of an unnamed character entirely through the use of “you”. And that’s saying something because I could hardly have less in common with this “you”. I’m not male, I’m not divorced, I’ve never been to New York City, I’ve never done cocaine, and I wasn’t even alive in 1984.
We follow our “you” as he stumbles through his life following his wife’s departure. A phone call from Paris (she’s a model) where she tells him she isn’t coming back. Which, it turns out, means coming back to “you”, not New York. You do a lot of drugs, mostly cocaine (it is the 80’s, after all) and you drink too much. Your friend, Tad Allagash, is a terrible influence on you and you know this but seem powerless to resist. Perhaps because he’s the only one to whom you’ve confessed Amanda’s abandonment. You’re smart but doing terribly at your job because you’ve become more than half-hearted about everything.
It isn’t until closer to the end of the novel that we learn of the greater sadness in our character’s life, the larger difficulties. We spend the book wondering if it’s too late, if it’s already hopeless or if somebody can save “you”. All in all, it’s a sad book. It’s a sad book about giving up.
Does it need to be told in second person? Probably not though it is well done. Mostly I would forget about the point of view and then, every now and then, I would stop and re-read a sentence, thinking, “Did it just say ‘you’?” So, yes, sometimes it took me out of the narrative but mostly I forgot about it. I never felt like the story was talking about my life but I can’t say whether or not that was the author’s intention. More often, I felt frustrated by “your” poor decisions, the inability you have to save yourself. It was hard to feel sympathetic for most of the novel, until that late reveal threw everything that had come first into a new light.
There’s a reason very few novels are written in second person perspective. But if more are to come, Bright Lights, Big City is a good how-to primer.