Sunday, October 17, 2010

The New Yorker: "To the Measures Fall" by Richard Powers

 You trudge out to the mailbox and reach inside, hoping that the New Yorker has come. Surprise! You find that it has indeed come. You open to page 72 to read the new Richard Powers story and to your immeasurable disappointment you see that the story is written in the second person. You read the story anyway, conclude that the choice of second person is just a gimmick, as it usually is. You like some aspects of the story, although you sigh when you learn that the protagonist has cancer, because you’re permanently tired of stories about people with cancer, even though there are other elements here that might redeem the story, if only it weren’t for that damned second person.

Enough. Let me explain why I don’t like the second person. This “you” voice is really the first person in which the narrator is either addressing the reader or some other auditor (in which case, sure, second person is intimate and fine), or, more often, is really talking to him or herself (the gimmick). The “I” is merely sublimated to the “you” and the only time I buy it as being exactly the right narrative choice is where there has been some trauma that, as it were, splits the narrator in two. Now, the fact that at the end of this story the protagonist—the “you” and, I would argue, also the “I”—appears to be on her deathbed might be justification for the second person. Her dying self is looking back on her life from some distance and addressing herself as a young woman and as she grows older. So maybe it is actually justified in this case.

I still don’t like it.

The story—the narrator goes to England as a student, finds a used copy of a book that intrigues her. She tries to read it but fails. Later as she is working on her dissertation she tries again and loves the book. She becomes obsessed. She gets married, has an affair with her thesis advisor, quits her program, goes to law school, gets divorced. She concludes that her copy of the book is signed by Winston Churchill, but doesn’t get the signature verified, but still follows the obscure author’s writings and news about his work. She gets married again and has kids. She practices law. She gets sick.

Although I was drawn through this story by the fluid writing and the suspense created about the mysterious author, in the end it didn’t satisfy me, probably because I resisted the voice. You?

October 18, 2010: “To the Measures Fall” by Richard Powers

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

There seems to be one more gimmick in Powers' story. It's purportedly about an early-twentieth novel, "To the Measures Fall," by Elton Wentworth, about whose life, work, and reputation the story's narrator digs up a great deal of information, including a current revival, new editions, listings on Amazon, etc.

From my Internet search, however, this is all Powers' own fiction, as I've found no references to Wentworth or his book.

Clifford Garstang said...

I didn't google but I assumed that it was made up; not that I've heard of everyone but the name didn't ring a bell and I think it would have been far less interesting as a plot element if Powers had used a real book/author.

David Cutler said...

As a Brit, fairly well up in 20th century British novelists, I thought it was a made up author and book--but was not sure until I found I could not find it in any of my reference books.
I dislike the second person narration, and I wonder why it was chosen.

Brian said...

I just read the New Yorker piece, and came across this one after Googling the title. Nice spoof. The second person narration is kind of annoying for its implied condescension. But it seems to me that it gets used when a writer is doing the 'rapid rundown of a life' thing. Still, I read to the end, partly because the protagonist is the same age as my mother, and the story is a reminder of my childhood and her life (she is still alive).

Beatrice said...

I liked the "you". He is playing with it, mentions "You are female, by the way." Maybe because I am of the generation chronicled by the story, because I have had my own obsessions against the backdrop of history, and because I have changed and seen how books change in reaction to my changes, I found the story charming and engaging and read it twice.

Sarah Collins Honenberger said...

I haven't read the story, and understand the general aprobation about yet another cancer story. However, having suffered the disease and the treatment personally, I find it offensive that editors jump to that conclusion without giving the writer a chance. Until I was diagnosed, I didn't really understand the huge shift in one's perspective to have cancer, and how drastically it changes the dynamics of your family and friends. Death continues to be the subject that most writers explore and cancer is the ultimate confrontation with death, so please, don't presuppose it's schmaltzy because it mentions cancer. Cancer can be earned in a story just like any other element.

Clifford Garstang said...

I said nothing about schmaltzy or about presumptions. The problem with many fictions about cancer is that they are ONLY about the cancer. If it ever was, that's no longer enough to sustain this reader's interest. There has to be more, no matter how deeply felt the experience of the author is. I've said repeatedly, and I implied it here with my reference to "redemption" that cancer is part of life and so of course there can be cancer in a story, as long as there are other thematic layers. The same goes for infidelity, and a number of other subjects.

Paul said...

I do not think of the 2nd person so much as a substitute for the 1st as for 3rd person limited (or 3rd person subjective, if you prefer)and I usually don't like it myself. There are 2 situations in which it seems to work. One, is when the protagonist's voice is not sophisticated enough (a child, for example) to carry the story (see Wells Tower's "The Leopard"), and the other is when it is used to GENERALIZE the protagonist (much like the old-fashioned 'one' (one knows it's a sham, but one bites anyway)), and that is what seems to be at work here. The protagonist takes on a 'universal' quality, and I think it works well in this story.

John Domini said...

The story seems to me a winner, touching & inventive, breaking significant new ground for Powers, & the 2nd person was appropriate to its theme of the search for identity &purpose, the fiction that we have a purpose.

Catherine Hiller said...

It's a wonderful story, exuberant, thoughtful and moving, and it captures each historical period it touches upon. One of the best New Yorker stories in a while.

ycronam said...

I'm with Catherine Hiller. Loved it. I'm the same age as the protagonist & dreamed of meeting her until well into middle age...

Joel said...

The second-person voice goes with the "test questions" at the end of each section. ("How much do you offer the junk-store owner for his used book?") It mimics -- or at least suggests -- the format of a math quiz. "You are on a train traveling at 100 mph...etc."

I'm not sure why Powers chose this format, but it worked beautifully for me. The quiz format lends an academic quality to the academic life being described, a sort of neutral, detached point of view. But it's such a recognizable life, following such a familiar trajectory, with such recognizable details ("Your online hours must come from somewhere, and it isn't from your TV viewing") that empathy inevitably creeps in.

It's also about how books mean different things at different times in one's life, and illustrated that brilliantly, I thought.

Coolkayaker1 said...

I did not read this R. Power's piece in the New Yorker and cannot comment if he pulled it off successfully or not (sounds like I'm describing a tightrope walker on a high wire), but I enjoy his work in general. I agree about second person. The blogger has stated it well in his introductory piece about the disappointment--and I share it when my favorite authors dangle a toe into the frigid waters of second person--in seeing that POV.

I couldn't have explained better the reasons most readers hate the second person voice, original blogger. And the condescending voice, as a reply poster mentions, reminds me of my mother telling me, "Stevie shouldn't leave his shoes in the hallway, now should he? Stevie is bad, no?" Stick a sock in it, mom!

JBranch said...

It seems to me first of all that Richard Powers's story illustrates the very old notion "de te fabula narratur." To match the original Latin word order, "about you is the story told," which I trust is clear: books are about us. There are two senses of "you" at work in Powers's story; one is the implied character who's reading the Wentworth novel, the other is the person who's reading the Powers story (i.e., each of us). In the course of showing how the imagined novel strikes the imagined character, Powers shows (and intends to show, it seems to me, however risky it can sometimes be to say so) how real novels affect real readers. Even a third and literal sense of the "de te fabula narratur" theme is detectable, revealed by links between situations in the novel (the freak snow mentioned in its opening line, the terminally ill character) and the situation of the imagined reader at the end (who experiences her own "freak snow" and places her finger on "the passage that predicted your life"). Assuming we notice this at all, Powers has given us a hint of literature's sometimes uncanny abilities here.

My second conclusion about his story is that it also illustrates how the meaning of an unchanging book changes for us over time. I'd like to think that much at least is obvious and doesn't require elucidation on my part.

In response to the first posted comment here, I might add (without intending any offense) that I see no reason why an imagined novelist should count as a gimmick. Is it somehow out of bounds for a writer to create a world that includes a novelist?

Anonymous said...

Edna O'Brien's novel A PAGAN PLACE is the best use I have ever read of the second-person narrator. It's a wonderful book about a girl growing up in the bogs of Western Ireland.

zmkc said...

I agree with all that JBranch says above, plus the second person adds a poignance to the final paragraph about being a girl who knew nothing cycling round the Cotswolds. If it were first person it would be self-pitying, whereas the slight distance of 'you' makes it strangely moving - at least for me.

Anonymous said...

The questions are directed at different audiences: some at the narrator’s younger self, some at her book-loving daughter, some at nobody, some at us. The second person voice is effective as the only device that lets the narrator survey her life on her deathbed and pause now and then to talk to her different audiences.

Anonymous said...

I think the "double" second person, involving on the one hand references to the protagonist and on the other boldface questions to the reader, works against itself. If anyone recalls the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series for young readers, end-of-chapter questions were just like this. If, for example, you have to "choose which two books get dumped forever," you actually choose and are asked to turn to a certain page in consequence. Your choice irrevocably affects the outcome of the story. Here, the reader-directed questions perhaps try to draw the reader into the protagonist's skin, but they had the effect of distancing me from the her. They broke the frame, it seemed to me, in rude and unnecessary ways. Had the protagonist become that English teacher she wanted to be, gripped in a maelstrom of mental literary gymnastics and constantly composing essay questions, the interruptions would have become comic, granting us jarring but pointed insight into her pre-occupations. As it is, they seem more to disrespect her, whoever she is. But maybe they serve to remind us of "our imprisonment in a medium as traceless as air," of our own elusive reality as protagonist of our story.

Eric said...

H no, what would have been a whole heck of a lot more interesting is if he would have used a real book. Jeez, go out and find a real book maybe that nobody's read and then use it. Plato, truth, beauty?

shoot said...

Loved it. I have no negative criticism. Liked it enough to google and see what had been posted about the story. After 2 years, "Elton Wentworth" now gets a few hits on the net!

Anonymous said...

Jesus. I'm gonna kill myself...