We can’t decide which aspect of Angelina Mirabella’s The Sweetheart is the most intriguing: the introduction to the world of wrestling, the fact that the wrestler in question is a woman, or the surprising and innovative use of second-person narration. Usually limited to cookbooks and how-to manuals, fiction readers rarely find an opportunity to appreciate the humble “you.” Here, Mirabella names her favorite second-person stories and shows us just how impactful “you” can truly be.
1. “On Being Told That Her Second Husband Has Taken His First Lover”
This is the story that opened me up to the possibilities offered by the second person. I was immediately taken by the way the voice was both a part of and apart from the protagonist. It had access to her consciousness, but it could also step away in order to comfort, criticize, and implore her. Because many of the classic examples of second person POV in American fiction were written decades ago, I’d come to think of it as dated. This story, written in the 30s, convinced me it was timeless.
The protagonist of this story is only eleven, and while his actions are limited—he walks to his mailbox, fakes unconsciousness, and is returned home by the officer who finds him—the threats he experiences are pervasive and ominous. It seems there’s a big cat on the loose, as if middle school and stepdads aren’t terrifying enough. The voice of the story is both immediate and sophisticated, a combination which would be impossible from either a present-day or retrospective first-person narrator. I am especially in awe of the way the story uses directives. In doing so, the voice takes on the role of coach or conscience, albeit one whose wisdom is questionable at best.
3. “The Death-Dealing Cassini Satellite”
I am very rarely ahead of the curve, but there have been at least two times in my life when I have discovered a gem before the general public: Breaking Bad and Adam Johnson. Long before The Orphan Master’s Son, there was Emporium, which includes among other treats this terrific second-person story. It is peopled with a busload of women staring down cancer, but the protagonist is standing on the precipice of adult life, which in some ways is a more frightening proposition. Seeing him here, sandwiched between “Leopard” and the next story, underscores my belief that the second person is well suited for the young protagonist, or anyone who is in a period of formation and might not have come into himself enough to claim the more self-possessed “I.”
4. “How to Become a Writer”
Lorrie Moore is one of the writers who made me fall in love with the short story, and it is with good reason that this one, along with other treasures like “How to Be an Other Woman,” has become a classic example of second person narration. In it, Moore adopts the language of the how-to manual, but she subverts it by turning the universal “you” into a specific protagonist and, instead of giving her a linear map toward the idyll of self-actualization, sends her on a more painful and plausible journey, one which acknowledges the messiness and muddiness of self-discovery.
5. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”
If the last three protagonists are under construction, then this one is in the earliest stages of rebuilding, which is to say he is falling apart. Junot Díaz has used the second person to good effect before, including “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie” in Drown and Lola’s chapter in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but I am partial to this story. The ending is perfect—clear-eyed, but not without optimism. Even a dog like Yunior deserves hope.