The second person narrative is rarely used. Textbooks on the topic keep referring to Jay MacInnerney and a handful of others. Unless you have the urge to dedicate a lyrical swan song to a forlorn love, we suggest you abstain from this mode of narration. “You” in every sentence will pave the way to artificial, stilted prose. Readers feel they are being addressed needlessly; strings of you easily divert attention from the character itself, either in respect to the narrator who intrudes by saying “you” or in regard to the reader, who is perpetually wondering whether it is he who is being addressed. However, there’s no ban on second person narration. It’s just extremely difficult to handle adeptly.
The implicit listener
The one who says “you” would be an “I” to himself, making this point of view a kind of narrative in first person—with the added illusion that this first person narrator is, say, sitting on his verandah, talking to some visitor who happens to drop by. João Guimarães Rosa made brilliant use of this ploy at the outset of his novel The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. Rosa allows the protagonist to react to someone else’s unheard (unrecorded) voice, to the shrug of his shoulders or the blink of an eye. In the company of an unspecified listener—whom we suspect to be a journalist, an anthropologist of sorts, or perhaps a priest—Riobaldo’s musings acquire a more poignant, emotional tone of voice; and we, the readers of his epic account, are magically—if with jumps and starts—drawn into a world characterized by fierce vendettas and haunting tenderness.
Perhaps the natural environment for second person narration would be the novel-of-letters. In novels of this type, the addressee defines each letter, each tone of voice, in a very particular way. The epistolary novel is not an oft-practised mode, but it was immensely popular in the 18th century with Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1792), for example, by Choderlos de Laclos. This kind of work is comprised entirely of letters; we see the story unfold through the lenses of various letter-writers, and we get to know the letter-writer through what they tell their recipients. We are also provided with privileged inside views of the characters’ schemes and designs, including, in this particular novel, the concomitant deceit. What Valmont nobly imparts to the virtuous and married Madame de Tourvel, is the opposite of what he really has in store for her: a superb seduction, as he boasts to his erstwhile lover, the Marquise de Merteuil.
Planning novels by drafting an epistolary version
Generally speaking, the epistolary genre has fallen out of favor. However, we believe the epistolary format offers you an excellent method to get a grip on the many relations that will sustain—or complicate—the novel’s plot, especially if you find it difficult during the writing phase to keep track of all those threads that tie your characters to the unfolding conflict—which is to say, to each other. Having your characters write letters to one another—even if they won’t post them; indeed, even if you, the writer, won’t utilize the letters in the final version—will help you grasp how things between them really are.