There’s Nothing Like the “Narrative-You” and I: The 2nd Person POV in Lorrie Moore’s How to be An Other Woman

(Okay, let’s get this blog rolling again. And, by the way, this was originally a report I presented in Fiction Class, edited, of course, for this blog)

Over the course of history, literature has always invited its readers to be mere voyeurs, via the use of the 1st Person POV and the 3rd Person POV, in all of its incarnations and variations. These two have been the most-over used techniques in presenting a narrative and they continue to be the most effective. They are efficient, easy to use, flexible and manageable .The 2nd Person-Point-of-View subverts this voyeurism, for it doesn’t make readers mere watchers, mere members of the audience, it coerces them to be an active part of the text. From this, a whole new dimension is created. Through a different perspective, combined with language, authors no longer simply convey the thoughts of the protagonist, and explain, or “show,” their ordeals and victories, their failures and losses. No longer do fictionists just present the world and the experience that the narrative revolves in. Using the 2nd POV, the fictionist allows its readers to become the protagonist. They influence/coerce them to wear the shoes of our character and to be in the midst of all the drama. The narrative becomes about them, so to speak. Such as in the case of Lorrie Moore’s story, How to be an Other Woman.

The story revolves around Charlene and her sexual affair with a married man. The story presents to the readers the entire relationship, beginning with their chance encounter outside a shoe store in the middle of a cold evening, up to their first conversation, towards the realization of their wanton longing and desire, and down to the degradation of their relationship. It is a meditation on infidelity, a once frowned upon concept that has gained normality during our times. It is a discourse on desire and betrayal, from the point-of-view of the reason, of the woman, which led to the betrayal. It is a celebration of Barthe’s discourse, conveying clearly and interestingly the semantics and semiotics of wanting and loss, that unwavering descent towards emotional destruction, trauma and separation.  And it is written in a manner which characterizes Lorrie Moore’s fictional stylistics: a story where humor is juxtaposed with tragedy, where the thin line between grief and bliss is explored, a narrative brimming with wit, with an astounding and breathless vitality in the telling of the story, a tale that heavily uses cultural references and  irony, whether it be verbal, situational or dramatic.

Much has already been written about infidelity. In the exploration of the erotic world, of the reality of eros, it cannot be help. Betrayal is second-nature to men and women. Desire lurks in the recesses of our mind. Deception is a drug that reaffirms our mortality for pursuit of it gives us both pleasure and fear. From Homer to DH Lawrence to James Joyce to Anais Nin to John Updike to Milan Kundera and even up to Allan Moore, we have been given the privilege to know how it feels to betray, to be betrayed and, to be the reason for the betrayal. Lorrie Moore, in her short story, takes the writing of this subject one notch higher by making the readers the mistress themselves.

The 2nd Person POV works in a way that it deceives its readers into believing that the reader is the protagonist. Once the reader embraces this dishonesty, once we “put (our) shoes in the wrong feet,” the performance soon begins. The play of the imagination settles. The plot begins to move forward.  At the beginning of Lorrie Moore’s story, it is not Charlene who stands “in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-Seventh Street window.” It is us. And pretty soon, we begin to abandon our awareness of ourselves and just become the narrative itself. In Lorrie Moore’s words, we begin to “…walk differently. In store windows, (we) don’t recognize (ourselves); (we) are another woman, some crazy interior display lady in glasses stumbling frantic and preoccupied through the mannequins. In public restrooms, (we) sit dangerously flat against the toilet seat, a strange flesh sundae of despair and exhilaration, murmuring into our bluing thighs: ‘Hello, I’m Charlene, and I’m a mistress.” But of course, this particular point of view has its downfalls and faults. For one, the reader might resist it. The reader might find it unappealing, the reader may not possess the necessary interest to continue reading the work, and in some scenarios, it might appall the readers. It takes precision and caution to make the 2nd POV effective in a work of fiction. In the story, Moore gives us five ways that make it effective.

The first one, of course, is the captivating premise and plot, which actually, according to Henry James in his essay, The Art of Fiction, is the first task of any work of fiction. The title itself takes form of a self-help manual, readying the reader that this is a narrative that teaches us “How to be An Other Woman,” an idea that is both intriguing and interesting. The title also prepares the reader to expect its authorial, controlling and rather imperative nature, as in its very core, How To’s have these characteristics, as their main purpose is to instruct and guide. Through this first way, the reader’s disbelief and resistance to the text is already suspended.

The second one is directly related to how the text was written and the rendering of the details. Seeing that the readers’ participation is very important to how effective the whole work is, Moore employed details which are clear-cut, precise and accurate. This is not the narrative that depends on the readers to make sense of the place. There are no vague or unclear images here. There are no hints or clues. In the story, exactitudes are presented. Take into consideration the opening of the story. Immediately, it begins by giving the place, and all its characteristics, including the date and time, the name of the store, the atmospheric conditions and even what they are wearing. Even the matches borrowed by the married man are given a name, something which the readers can hold on to. I believe that this preciseness is one of the reasons why, despite the story’s length, the readers are kept in the thrall of the text. Doing this gives the readers something palpable to hold on to, unlike minimalism and those hinting statements, which makes the reader work too much.

The third one is Moore’s conscious attempt to fuse humor in the telling of the narrative.  Humor here is used in two ways: to entertain and captivate. Humor balances out the heaviness of the text and its subject. After the emotional turbulence that is being a mistress, the laughs in the text acts out as a relief. Humor here also works in the same way as the Alienation/Distancing effects Brecht employed in his plays, “which prevents the audience from losing itself passively and completely in the character created by the actor, and which consequently leads the audience to be a consciously critical observer” (Willet 91). The humor here distances us from the emotional turmoil that is the text through sheer laughter and gives us a momentary breather to critically approach the narrative, while keeping us inside its world.

The fourth one is the vitality of the text. The whole affair is not depicted in the narrative. It would seem that most of the scenarios shown are those that are the most relevant to the story. They are the most pertinent plot points, the most that contribute to the overall thought and tension of the narrative and its conflict. And Moore tells it, in a run. It is fast. It does not linger. It is direct. It does not bother or slow down the text. Moreover, each scene presented ends on a suspenseful note, making certain that the reader has something to look forward to.

Finally, there is a sense of the present in the telling of the text. Seeing that the 2nd Person POV works on the reader’s performance (at least, in his or her head), the sense of the present must be observed. The past would have been to far gone for the reader to accept it. The future may be too distant for the reader to embrace it. An active narrative voice happening in the present time has to be utilized so the readers can take the necessary “performative” stance to completely know how it is to be another woman. Any other way would prove to be problematic in the reading and writing of the text.

The short story, in the words of Nobel Prize Winner Nadine Gordimer, “as a form, must be better equipped to attempt the capture of ultimate reality at a time when we are drawing nearer to the mystery of life or are losing ourselves in a bellowing wilderness of mirrors, as the nature of that reality becomes more fully understood or more bewilderingly concealed by the discoveries of science and the proliferation of communication media outside the printed world” (264). Through How to be An Other Woman, Moore successfully captures the “ultimate reality” that Gordimer speaks of as it not only provides the experience in the narrative but makes us a part of it. It is for this sole reason why Moore’s short story is a personal favorite of mine.

Citations and References:

Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. Ed and Trans. Willet, John. New York: Hill and Wang 1964

Gordimer, Nadine. “The Flash of the Fireflies.” The New Short Story Theories. Ed. May, Charles. Athens: Ohio University Press 1994.

James, Henry. “The Art of Fiction.” Essentials on the Theory of Fiction. Ed. Hoffman, M. and Murphy, P. Durnham and London: Duke University Press 2007.

Moore, Lorrie. “How to be Another Woman.” Self Help: Stories. New York: Vintage Books 2001 (Reprint).