Stories are usually written in first-person singular (I vomited a rabbit) or in third-person singular (He vomited a rabbit), where I and he are the protagonists.
Occasionally, the disconcerting second-person singular makes a showing, like in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, or more popularly, in confessions where the reader is requisitioned as judge or jury, like in Albert Camus’s The Fall (here there’s an overarching narrator I, and a second, quasi point of view: you).
If you haven’t thought about how a story in second person would sound, try writing You vomited a rabbit and spinning a narrative therefrom. Then try getting someone to read it; it’s an intrusive, and often grindingly repulsive, experience.
(If you’re wondering why anyone would think of cuddly rabbits in such emetic terms, see Cortázar: Where Bunnies Come From.)
What remains? There’s the first-person plural (we), the second-person plural (you), and the third-person plural (they).
Remarkably, Cortázar’s Bestiary runs the gauntlet of viewpoints (and points of view) and their tangled variations, but his story The Faces of the Medal is consistent: it is written in first-person plural.
The story revolves around Javier, a married Englishman working at CERN, and his abortive affair with Mireille, a Swiss colleague.
(Translation by Gregory Rabassa. Underlining by me.)
We liked our little ritual because it wasn’t daily and therefore mechanical; every three or four days, when we would come together in an elevator or in the hall, Mireille would invite him to joint his colleagues over tea, which would be improvised on her desk.
For a whole page and a half you read about the two characters through this split-souled we, never quite completing the identification that comes with first-person narratives, where you are the I, and never quite viewing them from the outside like you would in a pure third person, where Mireille and Javier are just she and he, and together they are they.
Then you reach the following.
Only one of the two is writing this but it’s all the same, it’s as if we were writing it together, even though we’re never going to be together anymore, Miereille will stay on at her little house on the outskirts of Genevea, Javier will travel about the world and return to his apartment in London with the obstinacy of the fly that alights a hundred times on an arm, on Eileen. We write it in the same way that a medal is obverse and reverse at the same time in the double play of the mirrors of life. We’ll never really know which of us two is more sensitive to this way of not being that each had for the other.
In the first sentence of the quote the we is justified explicitly; in the last, implicitly. The mechanisms of metafiction are manifold, but the most obvious one is such self-commentating that breaks the narrative. In this case, acknowledging the storytelling strategy burnishes the story’s poignance.
The language of personal pronouns is as much part of the story, as is the plot and the psychological journey of the characters; it allows for a different light to shine on each statement and action.
We know so many things, that arithmetic is false, that one and one aren’t always one but two or zero; we have more than enough time to thumb through the album of holes, of closed windows, of letters without voice or scent.
We has never felt lonelier.
In my previous post, I discussed how completely “disrespectful” Cortázar is of Strunk & White’s elements of style, such as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background. But perhaps it is now apparent that the writing commandments for non-fiction can only be boxed into fiction’s framework unfairly, both to the guidelines of good writing and to the undefinable postulates of good storytelling.
However you see it, another piece of Strunk’s advice—If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud!—and White’s interpretation thereof—Why compound ignorance with inaudibility?—does bear a phraseological metamorphosis into a sentiment true of Cortázar’s work:
Why compound the ineffable with the terse?
Circumlocution trespasses against clarity in lawmaking and science, but in imaginative literature it can serve for the cautious probing of mysteries and the shaking out of small, uncomfortable truths. On the other hand, a dearth of words can show up a lack of curiosity or a lack of caring for the mechanisms of the world, and in those cases, should be corrected for. Volubly.
In the end, the tortuously unsettling is Cortázar’s métier—he kindles within you an addictive curiosity for peripheral vision—but then again, life is tortuously unsettling. Only the bones of the dead cease to rattle in the winds of existence, and even then not quite.