By Jay Paine
I recently read Albert Camus’ philosophical novel, The Fall, and its point of view offers a unique literary experience. The story is narrated by a dissolute antihero, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, who confesses his failures and sins to a stranger at a squalid bar in Amsterdam. However, what makes this story so fascinating is that Clamence addresses the stranger in the second person. By having Clamence speak to the stranger in the second person, Camus makes you into the stranger. You become the first-hand listener of Clamence’s confession.
I was immediately captivated by how I, the reader, functioned as a character in this story. It is uncommon for the second person to appear in fiction, and it is even less common for a second person character to appear as one of the central characters. There are a few reasons for this. First, many stories do not need to pull the reader directly into the action. Many stories operate perfectly well when the reader is merely a bystander to the narrative. Second, it is challenging to write a character in the second person. A second-person character can’t perform much action, so there is rarely an opportunity for the story to progress. The subject matter of The Fall, however, is perfect for a second-person character. Since Clamence offers a confession, and the stranger merely serves as a listener, there is no need for the stranger to take action. In fact, the stranger occupies about the same role as the reader, so it makes sense to combine the two.
Not only was I intrigued by Camus’ attempt to write a second-person character, but I was also intrigued by how well he pulled it off. I think Camus pulls off this second-person character so well because he never gives him dialogue. By not giving him dialogue, Camus provides the reader with the freedom to respond to Clamence’s confession. As I was reading, I would often think, Clamence, you’re contradicting yourself, or Clamence, that’s awful. To intensify the reader’s agency in response, Camus even anticipates the points in the story where they will have these thoughts, and he has Clamence respond, “you are right” and “I’ll agree with you.” So whether you are thinking Clamence, you’re crazy, or Clamence, I can’t believe you did that, it always feels like Clamence is responding to you and not merely to some stranger.
Now that I’ve discussed the magic and difficulties associated with writing a character in the second person, I think it would be fun if you all toyed around with this style of writing, so I offer this to you as a writing prompt: Try penning a story emulating The Fall’s point of view. I invite you to experiment with a first-person narrator who addresses another character in the second person. Just see what happens. See what happens when you enter the story.