As a general rule, you should never write a story using second-person perspective. And like all writing rules, you can and should break it at least once. If a story’s good enough, you’ll get away with it, if it isn’t, try again some other time.
Anyway, lately I’ve come across some examples where it works.
- Liminal Grid, by Jaymee Goh, recently published at Strange Horizons.
One of the interesting things about the story (which is sort of a post-civilisation Mr. Robot, if I’m to be reductive), is the way it forces you to take on the role of the character in the story, and embeds you into their conversations without explaining the local colloquialisms or bits of non-English because obviously the ‘you’ of the story understands all that. Which I think is perhaps one of the strengths in second-person in general – it can force you to sympathise with a character, even if they are intrinsically other. But what if you went the other way? Imagine a second-person story where “you” keeps doing horrendous things and the narrator is trying to figure out why…
Because you live there, in that condemned building, you know that the plants in the buildings are carefully planted into a low-maintenance, edible garden. What looks like lalang is actually serai. The branches of the trees hang with fruit that feed the local fauna on the outside, but inside, they are covered with discarded CDs to confuse the birds. There are window boxes on the inside growing leafy vegetables, and chickens are allowed to run free to keep down pests. The courtyard used to have a pool—it still sort of does, but it is home to a crop of water-plants.
- There’s also Ted Chiang’s Story of You, which I’ve only had a chance to glance at so far, but which sounds fucking fascinating (and is to be a film by the incredible Denis Villeneuve). It’s actually a hybrid between first person and second, almost a conversation between ‘I’ and ‘You’.
- And finally, I recently read Mohsin Hamid’s novel How To Get filthy Rich in Rising Asia, which was an interesting and compelling story, beautifully told, and also a fascinating example of second-person perspective in use. I highly recommend checking it out.
The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum. It kills only about one in fifty, so you’re likely to recover. But right now you feel like you’re going to die.
Your mother has encountered this condition many times, or conditions like it anyway. So maybe she doesn’t think you’re going to die. Then again, maybe she does. Maybe she fears it. Everyone is going to die, and when a mother like yours sees in a third-born child like you the pain that makes you whimper under her cot the way you do, maybe she feels your death push forward a few decades, take off its dark, dusty headscarf, and settle with open-haired familiarity and a lascivious smile into this, the single mud-walled room she shares with all of her surviving offspring.
What she says is, “Don’t leave us here.”