Daniel Aureliano Newman*
Your body is our black box: Narrating
nations in second-person fiction by Edna
O’Brien and Jennifer Egan
Abstract: For a century, the disorienting effects of second-person narration have
seemed peculiarly well suited to representing the experiential confusions and
political contradictions of inhabiting a female body in times of national crisis.
This essay examines such effects in Edna O’Brien’sA pagan place and Jennifer
Egan’s“Black box,”very different narratives that similarly exploit the deictic and
ontological uncertainties of second-person address. Second person in O’Brien’s
novel participates in its depiction of a sexually naïve rural Irish girl confronting
the conflicting pressures of enforced chastity and reproductive futurism in the
name of the Irish State. Emphasis is placed on the narrative’s unusual use of past-
tense second-person narration and its intriguing overlap with O’Brien’s nonfic-
tional writings. In Egan’s story, the protean and multivocal second person
suggests a sinister fusion of individual and governmental agency, effected
through the protagonist’s cybernetically-enhanced body. The result is a decep-
tively simple critique of post-9/11 American foreign policy as an extension of
paternalism and patriarchy in the domestic sphere. The patterns investigated in
this paper shed light on other recent uses of the second person in other experi-
mental narratives concerned with identity, self-formation among disenfranchised
individuals, and resistance to political and cultural oppression.
Keywords: second-person narrative, feminist narratology, embodiment, the na-
tion, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Egan
this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way
they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to
wash every day, even if it is with your own spit; don’t squat down to play marbles –you are
not a boy, you know.
—Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl”(1983: 4)
*Corresponding author: Daniel Aureliano Newman, University of Toronto, 704 Spadina Ave,
Toronto, Canada, E-Mail: email@example.com
FNS 2018; 4(1): 42–65
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You are a republic of voices tonight. Unfortunately that republic is Italy. All these voices
waving their arms and screaming at one another. There’sanex cathedra riff coming down
from the Vatican: Repent.Your body is the temple of the Lord and you have defiled it.
—Jay McInerney, Bright lights, big city (2009 : 6)
Although now common, second-person narration remains undomesticated. It can
descend to the gimmicky, but it still has the power to be deeply unsettling and
politically potent. This power undoubtedly stems from the second person’s well-
documented resistance to the naturalized conventions of narrative discourse.
Unamenable to taxonomic and analytical exactitude, it rebuffs neat classifica-
tions and schemata. In this light, a more productive line of inquiry for narratolo-
gists is to ask what narrative ends are served using by the unnatural second
person. Though formal properties of the second person have enjoyed much
attention since the 1990 s, these aspectual elements (questions of how) still tend
to be investigated in isolation from elemental conditions (questions of what). An
important step in redressing this disconnection was Brian Richardson’s“Poetics
and Politics of Second Person Narrative”(1991), whose scope, however, is too
broad to attend closely to specific texts or contexts; little has been done since to
further its suggestive insights about the contextual correlatives of you-narration.
If form is a kind of content, what kind of content does the second person
contain? There is obviously no single answer. The you of Italo Calvino is not the
you of Margaret Atwood, Junot Diaz, or Nuala ní Chonchúir. There are never-
theless certain tendencies in its usage, not least a cluster of texts confirming
Richardson’s claim that it is “admirably suited to indicate the suppressed sub-
jectivity and silenced speech”of the disenfranchised (1991: 327). You can thus
expose with unusual clarity certain operations of power and ideology. Too un-
natural not to advertise itself, it may frustrate ideology’s surreptitious attempts to
naturalize social formations; as Dennis Schofield argues, “fluidity and undecid-
ability”are “central to the value of second-person modality for much feminist and
other oppositional and alternative writing”(1997: 105). This perspective brings
second-person fiction squarely into the purview of contextual narrative theory,
especially as articulated by Susan Lanser in “Sexing narratology.”In the present
essay, then, I examine how formal complexities of the second person participate
in the feminist critique and aesthetics in two texts, Edna O’Brien’sA pagan place
(1970) and Jennifer Egan’s“Black box”(2012). These texts, like their respective
uses of you, differ greatly –one is a Bildungsroman set in rural Ireland in the
1930 s and ‘40s, the other a futuristic spy thriller featuring an American cyborg-
woman. In both, however, the second person highlights the vexed relations
between selfhood and the female body, specifically in the context of a national-
ism intent on controlling their sexuality.
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1 Second-person bodies
In Narrative bodies, Daniel Punday posits a formal and historical parallelism
between narrative structures and scientific models of bodily development and
sexual reproduction. Though focused on genre and plotting, Punday’s insight
also invites correlations between a given narrative situation and the ways in
which a focal subjectivity is embodied –how a character inhabits her body, how
her thoughts interact with or refract her material existence. In practice, you-
narration often reflects the self-fragmentation and sexual ambivalence of women
at odds with their body. This is especially true of early second-person fiction such
as May Sinclair’sMary Olivier (1919), Rosamond Lehmann’sDusty answer (1927)
and parts of Jean Rhys’sAfter leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931), whose recurrent shifts
between second and third person depict the protagonist as a mosaic of conflicting
interests and desires. In Lehmann’s novel, the shifts reflect Judith Earle’s fluid
sexuality as she cultivates passionate affairs with lovers of both sexes. The same
pronominal shifts function differently in Mary Olivier, whose repressed protago-
nist can only imagine self-fulfillment by “blotting out your body and the world,
blotting out everything but your self and your will”(Sinclair 2002: 434). Much of
the novel’s suspense and social critique follow from this bodily rejection, a
symptom of Mary’s sexual ignorance.
Mary’s fraught relation to her body is typical of narratives of female self-
formation. Historically associated with the natural procreative body, as opposed
to the cultured masculine mind, women were excluded from the promise of
harmonious self-realization (Bildung) (Kontje 1993: 7). Yet societal expectations
encouraged women to deny the bodies that ostensibly defined them. Many
women consequently had no sexual education and knew little about their anat-
omy and desires; the few available channels of information were as likely to
obfuscate as to educate. Even today, girls’magazines designed to inform curious
girls can also participate in the societal control of their bodies, shaping knowl-
edge in ways that limit choice. No wonder Lorrie Moore finds such humour and
irony in the second-person conventions of self-help and how-to genres.
Feminist second-person fictions tend to privilege themes of education, voca-
tion, sexual awakening, marriage, motherhood, and social positioning –personal
concerns that are also linked, sometimes directly, to the nation. The Bildungsro-
man in particular narrates self-formation as a microcosm of national emergence,
but many other normative literary and non-literary genres embed individual
experiences in a national context. For a female protagonist, however, the neat
parallelism of individual and nation is torqued by the expectation that her
national duty is less to self-realize than to bear and raise future citizens. As an
individual and national subject, she does not cohere; her body is not quite her
44 Daniel Aureliano Newman
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own. Discussing Ireland as an unusually blatant case, Heather Ingman argues
that the nation “authenticated its Catholic identity largely through its women,
and nationalism in Ireland became the language through which sexual control
and repression of women were justified”; thus the “female body and the Irish
nation are conflated so that it becomes her community’s business”to manage her
sexuality and relationships (2002: 254, 256).
The second person has proved beautifully suited for narrating this vexed
condition. Feminists since Woolf have proposed the relational you among alter-
natives to the autonomous, masculine-coded I(Richardson 2006: 75–76). Taken
to extremes, though, relationality can be limiting. Thus the pronoun that bonds a
protagonist to her community can also ensnare her in a constricting web of social
ties. This effect results from the second-person narrator’s concealed identity. As
Dennis Schofield puts it, “whoever the referent of the ‘you’-utterance, what this
Protean, shape-shifting quality makes ambiguous is the origin of the narrative
utterances, and it can make uncertain the stability and therefore the authority of
that origin”(1997: 107). The narrator in such cases bears little resemblance to the
anthropomorphic entities who tell the story in natural narratives: it is better
characterized as a texture of discursive formations combining dispersed, shifting,
and multiple voices that are less generated than internalized by the protagonist.
The nation has no literal voice of its own, but it can hail its subjects through
proxies such as the state, the vox populi, propaganda, and authority figures like
parents, teachers, and priests.
Second-person narration can thus resemble interpellation, Althusser’s term
for how the individual is addressed by ideology. In Althusser’s classic thought
experiment, a police officer yells “Hey, you there!”on the street; by responding to
that call, say by turning your head, you validate ideology and confirm your
position as subject (2001: 118). Though narrative theorists have scarcely explored
affinities between interpellation and aspects of second-person narration, Roland
Barthes anticipated the relation in a 1958 review of Butor’sLa modification,
portraying Butor’s narrator as a paternalistic figure that “uses ‘you’the way a
creator addresses his creature, which is thereby named, constituted, and created
in all its actions by a judge and begetter”(1964: 103). Butor himself identifies you
1Shahriyar Mansouri makes this distinction in his essay on A Pagan place, defining the relation
between protagonist and narrator as “ventriloquism”(2013: 343): the protagonist is “the physical
vessel for the voice”of “‘thou shalt not’” or a “female narrator possessed by the masculinized
voice of the State”(2013: 340, 342). Earlier in the essay, however, Mansouri incorrectly conflates
the protagonist with the narrator, writing that “the struggle between Irish women and the State’s
gender politics manifests itself in having the female narrator hide her identity behind the
ambivalence and obscurity of second-person voice”(2013: 338).
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as “a character to whom one tells her own story,”“a character who, for one reason
or another, cannot tell her own story, who is forcibly denied language.... Thus
during an interrogation an examining magistrate or police commissioner would
gather various elements of the story which the prime suspect or a witness cannot
or will not tell”(1964: 80, translation mine). Bruce Morrissette likewise comments
on the second person’s“strong implication of judgment, or moral or didactic
address”(1985: 133). In this interpellating mode, second-person narration suits
stories about characters who are coerced, shamed, disciplined and otherwise
subjected to “the brutality of societies that must, for their very survival, suppress
the individual at the private level, and maintain order at the public”(Pelan 2006:
One of the political functions of second-person narration, then, is to model
how ideology addresses us, availing it of critique by making its operations visible.
If, as Althusser writes, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as
concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject”(2001: 117),
the unnaturalness of second-person narration might help frustrate ideology’s
“transform[ation] of “individuals”into “subjects”(Althusser 2001: 117). How
effectively it does so is another question, of course. Still, you-narration is fa-
mously resistant to assimilation into natural models of communication and, by
extension, into the naturalizations of ideology (Schofield 1997: 112). Embedding
its protagonist in a discourse that calls her you, a second-person narrative mimics
and reproduces the constitutive powers of ideology while inviting the reader to
experience, uncover, demystify, and maybe weaken them.
2“A footprint in your mind”
At ten or eleven years, when on a visit, you sat in a chapel with your legs crossed and were
asked by an incensed lady to please uncross them at one. “Did you not know,”she said,
“that Our Lady blushes whenever a woman does such an indecent thing?”
—Edna O’Brien, Mother Ireland (1999  45)
Second person is eminently matched to A pagan place’s themes of alienation,
ignorance and powerlessness. Substantially revisiting material from The country
girls (1960), the novel is stylistically more innovative and its depictions of sexu-
ality more graphic and violent. Set in the rural west of Ireland, it covers the
repressive late 1930 s and ‘40s “when,”as John McGahern puts it, “an insecure
sectarian state was being guided by a philistine church”(1991a: 19). Though men
were hardly safe in this society, it was, McGahern continues, “women [who] fared
worst of all within this paternalistic mishmash”(1991a: 22). Chief among these
gendered asymmetries was the lack of knowledge needed to make informed
46 Daniel Aureliano Newman
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sexual choices. This is certainly the case with the protagonist in A pagan place,a
young girl I call “Creena”(as O’Brien names her in the novel’s stage adaptation),
but whom the narrator addresses only as “you.”
Profound ignorance is a weird quality in a character like Creena, through
whom the narrative is so tightly focalized. So much in classical narratology hinges
on epistemic questions, such as determining whose consciousness is responsible
for a given utterance; such questions are complicated, if not rendered completely
unintelligible in the case of Creena’s remarkable obliviousness. These difficulties
are amplified by O’Brien’s use of the second person, which allows us simulta-
neously to perceive the world through Creena’s consciousness and to see her from
that world’s external perspective: we share her confusions (because the narration
is riddled with her misconceptions) even as we recognize the limitation of her
perspective and knowledge. Nowhere is the relation between Creena and the
narrating consciousness more paradoxical than in the narrator’s recurrent phrase
“you knew.”Because Creena often does not know, the phrase appears to serve a
role other than the intuitive one of describing the contents of her conscious mind.
The narrator who insists that “you knew”is, rather, performing the role of societal
interlocutor, exhorting or bullying Creena to admit knowledge she either lacks or
merely fails to grasp.
The narrator’s assertions that “you knew”have an imperiousness absent from
equivalent statements in first or third person. Reporting what Creena knew, such
a narrator inflects the statement with the hounding insistence of interpellation. A
child might similarly be berated by her parents for something she neither in-
tended nor even recognized as an offense: “You did that on purpose –you know
you did!”In short, the novel’s use of you makes Creena’s social world, in the form
of an interpellating voice, a participant in the narrative discourse. Writing on the
behaviour of the second person in A pagan place, which he characterizes “not just
as doubly deictic, but also as metadeictic,”Herman suggests that you thoroughly
blurs boundaries between “texts and contexts,”mobilizing “an indexical field
that shows itself to be culturally and communicatively saturated from the start”
(1994: 390, 401). Though Creena is the sole focalizer and the primary character,
then, the peculiar mode in which her story is told deflects some of the narrative
attention onto the world around her. Because you can have both specific and
general referents (you as particular individual, and you as the impersonal “one”),
O’Brien’s highly particularized portrait of Creena also suggests a typical condition
of Irish girlhood. The result is what Monika Fludernik describes as “the tension
between (sometimes provocative) address and the empathetic or involving use of
the generic you (you as “one”)”–a tension that accounts for “political uses of the
second-person pronoun”(Fludernik 1994: 470). By situating a girl’s experiences
in a given time and place and by allowing them to sound simultaneously indivi-
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dual and typical, the second person makes of A pagan place a key text for critics
who, increasingly, challenge the perception of O’Brien as a skilled but limited
writer concerned only with personal issues and re-evaluate her “as a postcolonial
writer ... preoccup[ied] with sexuality, land and national identity”(Laing et al.
One of the first and still one of the few novels narrated fully in second person,
A pagan place enjoys critical attention in studies of second-person fiction by
Richardson, Fludernik, and Rolf Reitan, but only David Herman has fully appre-
ciated how slippery and innovative is its use of you. Though Richardson classifies
A pagan place as a “standard second person narrative”(1991: 316), its apparent
conventionality has more to do with realistic content than with style. The plot is
so representative of modern Irish fiction that the strangeness of the narration is
easily overlooked. Identifying “at least five distinct usages of you”(1994: 392),
Herman shows that O’Brien’syou differs from “standard”second person not
because of the sporadic appearance of an illogical or impossible perspective but
because of its use of a “doubly deictic”or even “metadeictic”you, whose ever-
shifting referentiality hesitates ontologically between actual and virtual, fictional
and real, speaker and receiver. As a result, “the scope of you is modalized, as it
were, such that it covers anyone who might conceivably be a participant in the
discourse; you ranges over any context that might be activated and brought to
bear on the discourse”(Herman 1994: 400).
Herman suggests that A pagan place conforms less to the “standard”than to
the “autotelic”second person (Richardson 1991: 310). In the “autotelic”mode,
according to Fludernik, the “you exists only on the plot level”(2011: 108); the text
lacks a detectable narrator, narratee, and other speakers and addressees. In A
pagan place, however, the second person is autotelic because the you at least
transiently occupies every addresser and addressee position in the story, dis-
course, and real world. It is intuitive enough to say you indicates the protagonist
and narratee, as well as the reader (Fludernik 2011: 117). That it also addresses the
narrator follows from the narration’s palpable function as self-address or interior
monologue. More contentious is my assertion that you refers to the real author,
which rests on the narration’s peculiar use of the preterite and on the intertextual
echoes linking the novel to O’Brien’s autobiographies. It will be worth examining
this claim before addressing the relations between the text and contexts of A
Formally, O’Brien is identified with you thanks to the novel’s atypical combi-
nation of second person and past tense. Little has been made of this fact, though
several critics have found it noteworthy, and though tense is often linked with
deictic indeterminacy. The past tense is so naturalized in first- and third-person
fiction that its strangeness in the second is easily unheeded. The verb forms
48 Daniel Aureliano Newman
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typical of second-person fiction (present, future, conditional, subjunctive, im-
perative), though odd in most narrative situations, actually minimize second
person’s unnaturalness. In these forms, which do not presuppose the pre-existing
facts of the story (fabula), the reader is more likely to accept (or not reject)
identification with you. The present tense that dominates second-person fiction
tends to “generaliz[e] the action into something the reader not only might have
done, but might conceivably do”(Morrissette 1985: 110), whereas the past tense
implies a historical facticity and particularity that are more likely to jar by telling
the reader what she did do.
In other words, past-tense you has referential complexities that are undetect-
able in the present tense. Anti-narrative modes such as the present tense tend to
flatten time, resulting in “the loss of the deictic distinction between present-tense
now and past-tense thens”as well as “that of story and discourse”(Fludernik
2002: 190). In present tense, the many entities called you (narrator, focalizer,
narratee, reader) are conflated or undifferentiated, while the preterite brings their
differences into relief, enabling productive asymmetries or conflicts between
them. While Creena and the narratee are both you, then, the preterite enables and
requires us to separate the narrated-you (the young Creena of the story) from the
narrated-to-you (an older Creena to whom the story is told?). Highlighting you’s
ontological multiplicity, past-tense narration maximizes the second person’s
ability to occupy “multiple and extremely fuzzy addressee positions, counter-
acting classical here-and-now versus there-and-then dichotomies”(Fludernik
For related reasons, the past tense affects second-person narration’s“referen-
tial quality,”complicating its play with the particular-general spectrum and thus
“compromising a neat fiction versus fact distinction”(Fludernik 2011: 122). Nar-
rated in preterite second person, A pagan place has an autobiographical register
that is arguably absent from The country girls, effectively the same story narrated
in preterite first person. This statement would be purely impressionistic were it
not for the many remarkable parallels between Creena’s story and the experiences
Edna O’Brien recounts in her memoirs. Biography is an “intertext”critics should
2Explaining his “pet peeve against the second person,”Rob Spillman argues that when he reads
“‘You are walking down the street[,]’I go, ‘No, I am not walking down the street.’” Spillman’s
reaction is impossible to discount. Yet the dissonance is surely stronger in past than in present
tense. “You ate the worms”is more patently false (to readers who never ate worms) than “you are
eating the worms,”“Eat the worms,”“if you eat the worms,”or “you will eat the worms.”Parker
discusses links between tense and person in his dissertation, arguing that “the past-tense you is
the only you that indicates an unmistakable difference between a diegetic figure and a co-
enunciator –a difference constitute at least through temporal distance”(2005: 172).
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not ignore, argues Richardson, “a central ‘pre-text’of the work”of fiction (2011:
84). I will examine two examples below; for now, suffice it to say that with the
memoirs as intertexts and O’Brien’s documented experiences as pre-texts, A
pagan place includes its author in the identity of you. This admittedly controver-
sial claim is strengthened by O’Brien’s use of past-tense second person through-
out her memoir Mother Ireland, where it represents the author’s youthful self in
contrast with the present-tense second person reserved for more recent events.
The narrational situation in Mother Ireland is not quite so straightforward, how-
ever. O’Brien’s past- and present-tense yous jostle for pronominal space with
other preterite forms that indicate or include her young self: I,we, and one. Why
O’Brien sometimes uses you and sometimes other forms is not self-evident,
though I suspect it contributes to the blurring of the individual and the communal
that makes Mother Ireland a national as well as personal history. There is never-
theless a clear correspondence between the memoir’s use of preterite second
person and autobiographical first person. O’Brien’s claim that “the word rump
sent shivers through you, shivers of shame”(1999 : 29) may gesture at
generality, and indeed it gives the unavoidable impression that there is some-
thing systemic or general about the particular young girl’s experience. Yet the
experience it names is so specific, so rooted in the particularities of the word
(“rump”) and its physiological and emotional effects, that the past-tense you
functions far less like one than like the Iin such personal recollections as “I was
pleased, although embarrassed to sit aside and not be able to partake, believing
as I did that dancing disturbed the body”(1999 : 51). Whatever logic lies
behind O’Brien’s pronominal shifts in Mother Ireland, the effect of the past-tense
second person is clear: it mimics the phenomenology of individual experience
while maintaining the ironic distance afforded by retrospective and external
No mere formalist trick, the overdetermined narrational situation described
above serves as formal correlative to the novel’s central concern: sexual awaken-
ing in a country that suppresses sexual understanding. Creena is pathologically
confused by and fearful of sex. Faced with her sister Emma’s unwanted preg-
nancy, she simply cannot connect Emma’s condition with her actions: “The doctor
had termed it copulation, you would look up that word in the dictionary, in the
school dictionary, one day, in time to come”(1970: 136). Creena’s characteristic
passivity, and the fact that the answer lies in a dictionary at school, suggest that
she will not act to enlighten herself anytime soon. After Emma gives birth, “you
wondered if she was bleeding. Were her stitches out. Had she hollered in labour.
What was labour. You wondered”(1970: 174). Creena knows what questions to ask
but not what they mean, as if mechanically repeating things she has overheard;
notably, when Emma’s pregnancy first comes to light, “your mother asked if she
50 Daniel Aureliano Newman
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was bleeding”(1970: 118). Thus uninformed, Creena faces rather gloomy pro-
spects. She is the product of an attitude to sex deplored sixty years earlier by James
Joyce: “the first maxim in Irish morals is: omertà”(1968 : 295).
This code of silence explains a key moment in Joyce’sPortrait. Visiting his
father Simon’s former school, the adolescent Stephen searches for the desk where
Simon carved his initials and finds, instead, “the word Foetus cut several times in
the dark stained wood. The sudden legend startled his blood. It shocked him to
find in the outer world a trace of what he had deemed till then a brutish and
individual malady of his own mind”(1968 : 89). Maud Ellmann has claimed
that Stephen’s reaction is inexplicable (1982: 81), but it is surely a logical symp-
tom of his Irish-Catholic upbringing. As Joyce notes in his Trieste Notebook, “the
Irish artist and thinker [is] a being without sexual education”(1968 : 295).
Stephen is predisposed to finding “foetus”uncanny: it acquaints him with stir-
rings he had felt but not known as desire. It also confronts him with his material
origin –his umbilical link with his mother, and, through this “cable of all flesh”
(1993 : 38), his genetic kindship with all humanity. Forced to acknowledge
his identity with his despised father (note their shared initials), he must also
admit his most personal thoughts –the “individual malady of his own mind”–
are in fact universal.
Sexual miseducation makes Stephen squeamish, ashamed and misogynistic
and puts him in “dread ... of the mystery of his own body”(1968 : 168); the
situation is far worse for an Irish Catholic girl, even one living half a century later.
Stephen enjoys access to books and the societal indulgence to visit prostitutes,
whereas Creena is denied almost any useful or accurate information. And yet her
most likely futures are inextricable from sex and reproduction: like her mother
she might bear children and rue the day she married a profligate drunk, or like
her sister get pregnant out of wedlock and ruin her life. It is telling that, late in the
novel, Creena cannot recognize her “seduction”by a priest as abuse (1970: 210).
Alienated from her body, she has little hope of wisely negotiating the conflicting
pressures of enforced chastity and reproductive futurism foisted on her by the
Irish church and nation.
Second person helps depict this society, where sex is everywhere present but
never spoken, where the sexual body knows itself in the absence of conscious
knowledge. O’Brien claims to have written A pagan place
in the second person singular because I felt that in every person there are two selves: I
suppose they would be called the ego and the alter ego. And then there’s almost a kind of
negative state where things happen to you and you’re not really realizing that they’re
happening to you. And of course the only place that I could set it is in Ireland (O’Brien 2014 b:
8, emphasis mine).
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This half-knowledge must “of course”be set in Ireland in part because that is
where O’Brien situates “all my dreams, and all my experience”(2014b: 8). But the
“negative state”also reflects a cultural policy of sexual repression inscribed in
the very Constitution. Replacing the sexual equality guaranteed by the Irish Free
State in 1922, the Irish Constitution of 1937 limits women’s national duties to
procreation and domestic work. In the infamous Article 41.2, which tellingly
conflates “woman”and “mother,”the Constitution proclaims that “the State
recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support
without which the common good cannot be achieved”and that “the State shall,
therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic
necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”(All-Party
Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution).
Though too young to judge these conditions, Creena is intuitively affrighted
by the mystery of sex. In a passage that parallels Stephen’s encounter with foetus,
Creena is shocked by the sight of her pregnant sister: “You were consumed with
the nightmare of Emma’s belly. You thought you saw it move. You couldn’tbe
sure but that it was one of her muscles or if there had been any movement at all
other than a phantom one in your mind”(1970: 153). Creena’s reaction is unbid-
den and embodied like Stephen’s response to foetus, which “startle[s] his blood.”
Emma’s belly triggers a powerful corporeal empathy: the threat pregnancy poses
to her sister’s bodily form, individuality, and prospects infects Creena like “a
The empathetic blurring of separate selves is made more uncanny by the
second-person narration. What in Stephen appears to be a simple conflict be-
tween individual and procreative drives is infinitely more complex in Creena.
Immediately after the passage quoted above, the “nightmare”of Emma’s belly
literally makes her lose consciousness:
In the train lavatory everything got blurred. Black rings started to appear. They twinkled
black. They moved into your brain, whole batches of them. Once they got in there they
started swimming and merging together. They made a whirring noise like the spokes of a
bicycle. They occupied your whole heart. They were colliding. You fainted, but without
anyone knowing. Not even you yourself knew. (1970: 153–154)
The rings invading Creena’s vision mimic the division of embryonic cells, though
she knows nothing about fetal development. Their subsequent merging and
colliding would seem to be an instinctive reaction on her part, an equally
unconscious effort to turn back the gestational clock. Creena’s ignorance is
complicated by a shadowy knowledge housed somewhere within her, a knowl-
edge less subconscious than embodied. Her body knows what her mind and
words cannot grasp, a knowledge that is “like something you had heard before,
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distantly, a footprint on your mind, you didn’t know from where”(1970: 170).
That her body knows what her mind cannot comprehend is suggested by the odd
statement that “not even you yourself knew.”Although Creena, in the next
paragraph, regains consciousness and apparently deduces what happened, it is
nevertheless perplexing that the narrator bothers mentioning Creena’s lack of
knowledge, let alone gives it rhetorical weight by poising it at the end of a
paragraph. By suggesting a universal lack of knowledge about the state of
Creena’s body, the narrator indicates her body itself as the source of information.
The importance O’Brien assigns to sexual ignorance is clear in comparisons
between the novel and corresponding passages in her memoirs, especially Coun-
try girl. Most fascinating is how the second-person novel and the first-person
memoir report the same events not only in different styles but also with telling
alterations in content. These differences reflect divergent narrative aims, but also
a crucial distinction between author and character: the memoir traces O’Brien’s
growth through various trials, while Creena cannot extricate herself from those
These different aims regularly place different emphases on and reflect
different attitudes toward sex. Recounting her early adulthood, O’Brien recalls a
man’s attempt to woo her by assuring her “there was nothing to be afraid of as ‘he
could go through me like butter’” (2014a: 102); thus the seduction comes to a
grinding halt. In A pagan place, the same line is given instead to a priest well into
the act of assaulting a teenager: “You were like people dancing only that you were
lying for it, supine. He said he could go through you like butter. He put his finger
under the leg of your knickers”(1970: 203–04). The line may have been “shocking
altogether”in its original context (2014a: 102), but imported into a new context
that magnifies the power asymmetry, it highlights the sexual ignorance and
victimization at the heart of A pagan place. Less charged but equally significant is
the account of O’Brien’s birth in Country girl and Creena’s in the novel. In the
memoir O’Brien writes, “I was an ugly child, so ugly that when Ger McNamara,
the son of the couple who lived in our gate lodge and a captain in the Irish army,
came to congratulate her, my mother said I was too unsightly to be shown”
(2014a: 8). O’Brien immediately dispels any potential mystery about the source of
the information about her own birth, citing “the ragbag of anecdote, hearsay,
allegory, and consternation that filled the canvas of my early life”(2014a: 8). As
3When I link you to Edna O’Brien, then, I should more accurately say that you addresses a virtual
version of her –the self she might have been had she not, say, found a book on Joyce and
consequently developed literary ambitions. The novel ends as Creena joins a convent; at the same
age O’Brien also planned to be a nun (1999 : 95) but chose instead to move to Dublin, then
London. O’Brien’s decision to place the convent in Belgium makes sense: sending her to Belgium
at the height of World War II is an expedient way to kill off this particular version of her past self.
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concerned with Ger McNamara as with her own birth, the memoir tones down
what is, in the novel’s corresponding passage, a dominant concern with repro-
duction. After Creena’s birth, her father and uncle lean “over the bed trying to get
a gawk at you, to discern your sex, and your features. The midwife said you were
lovely but said it out of shock so preposterous were you.... The midwife stitched
your mother, made a botch of it. Your mother didn’t tell these things but you knew
them. You were three then and comprehending”(1970: 27). This birth is attended
with mystery and a haunting intuition about sexuality, from the men reading
Creena’s“sex”to the secret of her mother’s reproductive body. Unlike the episode
in Country girl, the source of Creena’s knowledge is pointedly obscured: her
mother, her most likely informant, “didn’t tell these things.”Casting ironic doubt
on the accuracy of Creena’s three-year-old knowledge while asserting that “you
knew,”the narrator adopts two guises as Creena’s addresser: an older, wiser
Creena gently mocking her naive young self; and a more sinister interlocutor that
insists she knows what she does not, like a prosecutor badgering a defendant into
a false confession.
Sexually uninformed, Creena lacks the freedom to choose her fate, even the
ability to imagine the choice. Early on, Creena observes what could very well be
her future as her mother prepares to visit the conjugal bedroom:
Before she went across the landing she put tissue paper in the inside of her pussy. It made a
crinkly noise. Even without a candle you knew what she was doing. She saved tissue paper
from the boxes that new shoes came in. Over there she moaned and groaned. His sinews
cracked. You ate sweets, small chocolate buttons that congealed on the roof of your mouth.
Creena knows what her mother is doing with the paper, but not why, and she is
incapable of grasping the significance of tissue paper being her mother’s only
means of contraception. Nor does she seem to realize her parents are having sex.
Her cluelessness reflects and reinforces a national policy of sexual ignorance that
facilitates bad sexual choices, thus serving Ireland’s gendered nationalism.
The novel’s estranging second person simulates the phenomenology of an
erotic life unrecognized as such; it also performs the related function of severing
the narration from any distinct human narrator. The narration is a tapestry of the
personal thoughts, folk wisdom, moral teachings, and disciplinary exhortations
that constitute Creena as a subject. It often transcribes Creena’s interior mono-
logue but also channels those who censure her desires and silence her—her
mother, her priest, the State. It is a fitting way to tell the story of an Irish girl,
suggests O’Brien in a 1970 interview: “the thing about being a child is that you
don’t really evaluate it until you have gone from it.... When I was young it [my
life] was governed by other people”(2014b: 9). The second person helps render
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Creena’s thoughts but also mimics her mind pursued by “the hounding nature of
Irish Catholicism”(1984: n. p.). During one of the novel’s many masturbation
scenes, we see how the “hounding”voice of authority adds public shame to
Creena’s private guilt: “You put two fingers in. You touched it. What were you
doing? What were you doing? It was a sin. It was a sin against two Command-
ments”(1970: 113–114). The repeated question literalizes the doubling contained
in second-person address, the simultaneously internal and external character of
the narrator. It is the voice of Creena addressing herself as if she were another, a
way to assuage guilt; this is how Hope Hewitt interprets the narration in A pagan
place,an“ashamed confessional whisper”(1971: 15). It is also the voice of
authority that says thou shalt not.
In a society that represses sex but requires every dirty thought to be aired in
the confessional, the ostensibly chaste priest is perversely the only choice of
lover. Creena consequently interprets her assault by Father Declan as “an honor”
(1970: 203), albeit one to be borne silently. As the narrator rather equivocally
addresses Creena afterwards, “you held your tongue. You were like Emma, with a
secret sewn into you. You were not going to dwell on it, not even to yourself, you
were not going to reinvoke it”(1970: 211). The narrator’s insistence that Creena
not “dwell on it, not even to yourself,”suggests the reproving voice of authority,
which may be internalized by Creena or else speaking from some undefined,
overdetermined vantage. In any case, Creena processes her abuse by further self-
fragmentation: “You set about calming yourself as if you were an outsider who
had witnessed what had happened”(1970: 209). In a sense she has been that
outside witness, when she overheard her parents in bed. In a fitting but disturbing
structural symmetry, O’Brien sets Creena’s punishment for her transgression with
the priest in the very same bed. Symbolically usurping her mother in the marital
bed, Creena is flogged by her father who, having “dragged your knickers down”
(1970: 208), usurps the priest-lover: her father
got more impassioned as he went on. The flap between your legs began to hoise up and down
and you encouraged that and the pleasure that you forsook when you expelled the priest’s
finger began again, and the tumult that should have been his to witness took place unbe-
knownst to him on that ratty bed while other parts of you smarted and cried. (1970: 208)
In a poignant indictment of Catholic Ireland, Creena is granted her orgasm during
a savage beating in which the father merges with husband, priest, and state. It is
as if these paternalistic roles were interchangeable in the context of a girl’s sexual
education. After the beating, “your body began to make its grievances known.
There were two different hurts, the one on the very surface like a scald and the
other in the very interior where your marrow and your predilections lay”(1970:
208–209). Explicitly identified as the source of sexual behaviour, Creena’s body is
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self-divided like her mind. Its knowable “surface”covers a less legible “interior
where ... your predilections lay,”a location as unclear to Creena as it is to readers.
Though these are Creena’s thoughts transcribed, the second person stresses
disconnections between her experience and the language to describe it. “Your
predilections”suggests something someone, perhaps her mother, has said about
her. Creena borrows words she so dimly understands that they cannot help her
grasp her situation, let alone empower her.
3“Your body will yield a crucial trove of
I could immediately feel that it was going to be about gender roles and gender stereotypes,
because she uses the stereotypes many of us have about pretty girls to hide her real purpose
—Jennifer Egan, “Jennifer Egan talks about ‘Black box’”
In contrast to A pagan place’s Irish parochialism, Jennifer Egan’s“Black box”is
firmly of the global and digital present. Published serially on Twitter before
appearing in The New Yorker, the story is a spy thriller set in 2030. Its heroine
stands in for America: rooting for her, we root for the nation she defends from
foreign terrorists. At first glance, the story celebrates an ultra-modern woman
fighting for her country with all the gadgetry and sexual freedom of James Bond.
But her empowerment is equivocal at best, her apparent agency belied by her
husband and government standing behind the scenes, pulling the strings. In
Egan’s post-9/11 America, control over a woman’s body lurks beneath a thin
veneer of girl power.
Readers familiar with Egan’s novel A visit from the goon squad (2010) recog-
nize the heroine of “Black box”as Lulu. Last seen in the final chapter of Goon
squad, set in 2020, Lulu is “in her early twenties (...), and a living embodiment of
the new ‘handset employee’: paperless, deskless, commuteless, and theoretically
omnipresent”(2011: 317), communicating mainly by quasi-literate text message. A
poster child for the internet age, she is appropriately engaged to Joe, a tech genius
who “hailed from Kenya and was getting his PhD in robotics at Columbia, where
he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd control”
(2011: 62). In “Black box,”Joe’s work in surveillance and counter-terrorism neatly
aligns the interests of the state with his personal influence over Lulu’s life and
career choices. It is Joe, indeed, who recruited Lulu on behalf of her government.
Disguised as a “Beauty,”Lulu must gather information by seducing a terrorist
leader, her “Designated Mate.”She must wear a bikini at all times, so her equip-
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ment is built into her: her body boasts cameras, data ports, GPS, and other
implants. Domestic and national paternalism is literally incorporated in Lulu.
It is in this context that we must consider the narration in “Black box,”a
series of Tweet-like dispatches whose protean second person reflects a woman’s
complicated relation to her body and her nation in the age of online surveillance.
As in A pagan place, the narrator of “Black box”is a multiplicity, combining and
alternating between perspectives and voices, most importantly those of Lulu
herself, of her computer programming, and of the State. These distinctions are
rarely clear because the narration ranges widely along the spectrum from general-
ity (you as secret agent) to specificity (you as Lulu). The early dispatch, “If you’re
having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting,”is a general
protocol, voiced directly by the computer or self-narrated by any agent in Lulu’s
position. A later dispatch, “If you love someone with dark skin, white skin looks
drained of something vital,”is formally similar, but here the generality of the
conditional conflicts with the informational content, which refers specifically to
Lulu and her husband Joe. It is hard to imagine how generalizing these individual
details could have operational value. One dispatch implies that Lulu is doing the
generalizing herself: “Always filter your observations and experience through the
lens of their didactic value.”This is indeed how Egan explains the narration. Yet
some dispatches are clearly not Lulu speaking to herself.
Lulu’s self-address is often better described as ventriloquism. At one point,
immediately after noting that “a hundred feet of blue-black Mediterranean will
allow you ample time to deliver a strong self-lecture,”the narrator adds that “at
such moments, it may be useful to explicitly recall your training:/“You will be
infiltrating the lives of criminals. / “You will be in constant danger. / “Some of
you will not survive, but those who do will be heroes. / “A few of you will save
lives and even change the course of history”(original punctuation, emphasis
mine). Framed as a “self-lecture,”the dispatches tellingly marked with inverted
commas are in fact the repetition of a lecture given to her by her trainers. By
flagging this narrational palimpsest explicitly, Egan warns that any dispatch that
appears to reveal Lulu’s thoughts may be infected by other, not necessarily
benevolent, perspectives. The apparent rendering of Lulu’s consciousness is al-
ways possibly a transcription of “your Field Instructions, stored in a chip beneath
4By Egan’s account, “Black box”is narrated by Lulu, who “filters each communiqué into a
lesson she has derived from each step of the action”(2012b: n.p.). Many dispatches complicate
this model, in particular those in which the state uses the first-person plural to address Lulu:
“When self-preservation requires that you harm the innocent, we can provide no more than
guidelines”(2012a: n.p., my italics).
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your hairline.”The second person thus models how individuals interiorize and
personalize voices that speak through them, often to their personal detriment.
Lulu’s ostensible pep talks conceal directives from those who use her as an
instrument. When she steels herself for sex with her “Designated Mate,”the
narrator offers some rather revealing encouragements: “You will reflect on the
fact that America is your husband’s chosen country, and that he loves it. / You
will reflect on the fact that your husband’s rise to prominence would have been
unimaginable in any other nation. / You will reflect on your joint conviction that
your service had to be undertaken before you had children.”Spurring Lulu’s
patriotism, the dispatches also directly link her commitment to her mission with
her husband’s career-prospects and her eventual motherhood (a condition that
appears to rule out her independence and agency). The voice of the state thus
validates the sacrifices it demands of its operatives, who must risk their lives, do
the government’s dirty work, become cyborgs, and sleep with the enemy. That
these dispatches could be read as Lulu talking to herself only foregrounds the
insidiousness of ideology, which operates under the guise of personal choice,
giving her “the impression of unfettered freedom”(Egan 2012 a: n.p.).
At times, the voice is clearly not Lulu, for example when circumstances force
her to go off piste. When another “Beauty,”cradling a baby, aims a gun at Lulu,
Lulu is effectively ordered to attack by being told that, officially, it is her decision:
“As Americans, we value human rights above all else and cannot sanction their
violation. / When someone threatens our human rights, however, a wider leeway
becomes necessary. / Follow your instincts while bearing in mind that we must,
and will, hew to our principles.”The narrator claims solidarity with Lulu under
the umbrella of the national first person (“our human rights”), only to exclude you
from we when the going gets tough (“follow your instincts... we will hew to our
principles”). The state-narrator thus maintains authority and plausible deniabil-
ity. Strategically eliding we and you, nation and individual, it offloads onto Lulu
the responsibility to violate the very ideals, moral and cultural, she is tasked with
protecting. Her mission’s“goal”is to “help perpetuate American life as you know
it,”yet her methods involve forfeiting that life, especially the defining American
ideal of individualism. “In the new heroism,”she is told, “the goal is to merge
with something larger than yourself. / In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce
the American fixation with being seen and recognized.”When it comes to dirty
work, however, she is on her own.
Her sacrifice of individuality is consistently gendered. Lulu is advised to
“avoid excessive self-reflection”;to“mirror your Designated Mate’s attitudes,
interests, desires, and tastes”; and that “throwing back your head and closing
your eyes allows you to give the appearance of sexual readiness while concealing
revulsion.”Such instructions may help Lulu succeed, but only by upholding a
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traditional code of feminine silence, self-sacrifice, and submission. To this end,
the narration adopts the conventions of advice columns, a second-person genre
traditionally aimed at women, promoting the ideal of ‘being yourself’while
silently enforcing societal norms. The gendering of the disciplinary voice is
stronger for being embodied. Thanks to a locator in Lulu’s flesh, the paternalistic
voice of the nation can assure her that “your whereabouts will never be a mystery;
you will be visible at all times to those watching over you.”Though aimed to
comfort, the statement also hints that the potential hero is also a potential threat
whose body must be monitored. The government watching over her is also simply
watching her. Consider, too, that the government equates Lulu’s patriotic mission
with her willingness to make her body sexually available. When a “violent and
ruthless man”propositions Lulu, the narrator chillingly observes that “you may
appreciate why you aren’t being paid for this work,”adding, “your voluntary
service is the highest form of patriotism.”As with Creena, though by rather
different means, the nation makes instrumental use of Lulu’s sexuality and
alienates her from her body. In her case, the estrangement is literal: to endure her
“voluntary”sexual experience she deploys a “Dissociation Technique”that en-
sures that “you should feel fully detached from your physical self.”
The detachment is ultimately too successful: apparently, Lulu does not
survive her mission, dying of a bullet wound while awaiting rescue. The text of
“Black box,”it seems, was generated from data recovered from her corpse. “Your
physical person is our Black box,”says the plural narrator associated with the
state; “should you die, your body will yield a crucial trove of information. /
Remember that, should you die, your Field Instructions will provide a record of
your mission and lessons for those who follow.”This late revelation explains
Egan’s use of future tense as well as second person: the “mission log”recorded in
the black box of Lulu’s body becomes “Black box,”a story that will serve as “a
guide for others undertaking this work.”Each of these others is on a mission
following Lulu’s death, and each of them is you.
That beautiful English word for the Other is Thou. I happen to think that the person cannot
emerge from the Self, and that the Other, which is the beloved object, does speak in a
different language to the Self.
—John McGahern, “In conversation”(1991b: 16)
So what do you do when you build yourself –only to realize you built yourself with the
wrong things? You rip it up and start again.... What will be, eventually, you?
—Caitlin Moran, How to build a girl (2014: 318–319)
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In A pagan place and in “Black box,”the second person undercuts optimistic
genre expectations associated with the Bildungsroman and the spy thriller.
Against the illusion of autonomy and self-determination, you-narration exposes
the characters’vulnerability and submission to societal forces that appear to be
inescapable. The similarities linking the two texts stress how easily patriarchy has
shifted with cultural norms from suppressing the sexual body to using it in the
guise of “the new heroism”(2012a: n.p.). Yet both narratives also exploit the
fluidity of second person to carve out small spaces of private rebellion or self-
After Creena’s assaults by priest and father, O’Brien portrays her life and
troubled relations with her two parents (“him”and “her”) as a record secreted
within the black box of her body:
Your body, like your brain, was crammed with incidents. It had to its credit a seduction and
flaying in one day.... It had all the years of fondlings, and strokings, from him, from her, and
cramps after you took senna, your first sanitary towel, the way she engirdled you each night,
the saddles of bicycles, and capsizements on icy roads on winter mornings. You had never
used a loofah but it was something you had an ambition to do. (1970: 210–211)
A grim catalogue of discomfort, abuse and confusion, the passage appears to be
Creena’s own attempt to take stock of and give narrative shape to the events
leading to her present crisis. It also signals, with the delightful non-sequitur about
loofahs, a new aspect of Creena –not quite agency, but a definite desire contrast-
ing with her usual passivity. In this and similar moments we glimpse a private you
lurking behind the you admonished by the familial and public authorities. O’Brien
has explicitly linked this private self to the use of you-narration in A pagan place:
“the second person was a way of combining the two identities”that coexist in “a
child”–“your secret self and the ‘you’that your parents think you are”(1984: n.
p.). The interpellated you overlaps with but does not fully contain all of you.In
those precious moments of privacy, the one calling Creena you seems to be Creena
herself, validating or encouraging in herself small ways.
One of these private escapes is occasioned by Creena’s erotic life. Heterosexu-
ality is always problematic, however. Whether leered at, insulted, complimented,
or aroused by males, her response always includes fear and guilt –it is always “a
ridiculously short span between the first cry that was pleasure and the last that
was of shame”(1970: 205). Even as a young girl, heterosexual pleasure is tainted:
“the biggest sin of all,”which shame prevents her from confessing, is “opening
your legs a bit and putting the soft velvet paw of a boy doll in there, squeezing
with all your might and then when the needles of pleasure came getting furious
with him”(1970: 42, emphasis mine). These negative feelings are notably absent
from the “game”Creena plays with Della, who pretends to be Clark Gable’s lover:
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Clark Gable was the first to speak. He asked her why she went motoring with Robert Donat.
She said she liked Robert Donat’s car. Then he took her wrists and squeezed them very tight
and she pleaded for mercy and he would not let go until she kissed him and the kiss was on
the lips and very passionate. You knew it was passionate because you were Clark Gable.
Playing Gable allows Creena to shed her passivity and enjoy a “passion”other-
wise absent from her life (tellingly, though, her new masculinized agency man-
ifests as coercion). Unlike other accounts of what “you knew,”the statement that
“you knew it was passionate”attributes the knowledge unambiguously to Creena
herself and carries no suggestion of disapproval.
This secret pleasure, a glimmer of both erotic and imaginative freedom,
anticipates Creena’s final and most significant act –her decision to leave Ireland
for a Belgian convent. Her escape into the homosocial space of the convent
releases her from the compromised heterosexual life trajectories embodied by her
mother and sister, and it significantly occasions her one first-person speech, “I
will go now, was what you said”(1970: 234). Although the second person is
immediately restored, and though Belgium in the early 1940 s almost certainly
means death, the decision is an active choice, a kind of victory.
Lulu in “Black box”is granted similar acts of private resistance. In a crucial
dispatch, she is reminded that “where stray or personal thoughts have intruded,
you may delete them.”The directive ironically undermines itself, betraying the
fact that Lulu has thoughts that do not serve and possibly undercut her mission.
More importantly, it highlights the reality of Lulu’s agency, because she patently
does not always delete those thoughts: the narrative is studded with childhood
memories, aesthetic musings, and questions about her parentage. Phrased like
any other dispatch, “Discovering that you are a movie star’s daughter is not
necessarily a comfort”is, however, purely personal. So is Lulu’s response to her
host’s bad breath: “Everyone should brush his teeth before dinner,”the masculine
pronoun revealing how a strong emotion (disgust) overcomes her duty to general-
ize “your observations and experience through the lens of their didactic value.”
Elsewhere, Lulu actively mocks the dominant voice through mimicry: “You will
reflect on the fact that these ‘instructions’are becoming less and less instructive.”
Lulu can infect the dominant voice as much as it infects hers. Revealing thoughts
5The Clark Gable episode offers another telling contrast between fiction and autobiography: in
Country girl,O’Brien mentions having “become smitten with film stars... I would make up little
dramas about them, and my two chosen stars were Clark Gable and Dorothy Lamour. I twined
them in a romantic situation, swearing love, et cetera”(2014a: 40). The novel’s jealousy and
eroticism recur in the memoir, but Della was apparently a fictional invention, strengthening the
novel’s presentation of same-sex eroticism as a positive alternative to heterosexuality.
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that are superfluous to her mission, such moments undermine the parallel be-
tween individual and nation. It may or may not be the voice of ideology that
assures Lulu that she is more than just “your shiny persona”:“you’ll be surprised
by what lies under it: a rich, deep crawl space of possibilities.”
Creena’s and Lulu’s private acts of rebellion hardly constitute effective action.
Not much good can come from Lulu’s rebuttals to the voice of authority, though
they may make her feel better. Private acts are unlikely to free her, let alone
change social formations. But, then, to have these characters successfully extri-
cate themselves from the nets enclosing them would perhaps be more political
irresponsible, pure escapism, than to expose just how inextricable those nets can
be. To equate the characters’failures with political or ethical resignation or
ineffectuality is to conflate character with author, story with text. As Richardson
puts it in his reading of A pagan place,“the character’s loss can, paradoxically, be
the author’s triumph”(1991: 317) –and, I would add, the reader’s too.
Creena and Lulu are hailed by the voices of ideology that call them you, but
so is another you: the reader, me. But unlike the characters, my relation to the
interpellating narrator is mediated textually; there are diegetic levels insulating
me from its hailing. Such narration, as J. Hillis Miller has proposed, puts the
reader “in the position of the conscience, the judge or jury,”but, because this
position entails responsibility, “the reader is [also] put on trial in a way that is not
... relaxed or merely receptive”(2007: 14, 15). Picking up this suggestion, Dorothy
Hale argues that “Althusserian hailing is thus revised by Miller as the basis of
literary ethics –responding to the call of the text puts the reader in the position of
responsibility to the text”(2007: 191). While Althusser defines interpellation as
“the ideological delusion of the liberal subject who believes that she has freely
chosen what is in fact assigned to her, ... for Miller the literary phenomenon of
textual ‘calling’constructs the reader as a good reader –an ethical subject. And it
does so for Miller by generating readerly freedom out of a textual necessity”(Hale
2007: 191). The polyreferentiality of you makes me the judge but also the avatar of
Creena and Lulu, as well as an external witness to their predicaments. As an
ineluctably dialogic mode, simultaneously intimate and ironic, second-person
narration might thus facilitate narrative empathy not despite but by virtue of
alterity. This may be why contemporary fiction uses the second person in order to
depict characters marked by race, gender or disability –in feminist and postcolo-
nial Bildungsromane like Eimear McBride’sA girl is a half-formed thing and
Mohsin Hamid’sHow to get stinking rich in rising Asia, for example, or in science-
fiction explorations of biopolitics like Martha Nussbaum’s“Little C”and Charles
Stross’sRule 34. Mirroring the regimes of discipline and surveillance that govern
us, the second person’s estranging in-your-faceness also makes it harder to ignore
or accept those regimes. As Michel Leiris wrote of La modification,itis“as if the
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menacing use of you were also an effective incitement to become aware”(1985
: 311, translation mine). Considered in its context, then, second-person
narration might not only expose how power operates on individuals but also spur
us into self-reflection and political consciousness, encouraging us to investigate
who you is and imagine who you might be.
Acknowledgements: Early versions of this essay, written during a postdoctoral
fellowship funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of
Canada, were presented at the Modernist Studies Association conference in 2014,
at the English Department at McGill University in 2016, and at the Literature
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