The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you.
The first book begins in second person present. A page later “you” watch two guys walk out of the bar. Once they’re out on the street the narration shifts to 3rd person preterite:
Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he and Martin Drake stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare.
This more traditional narrative tense persists until the opening of the sixth book, when finally you find yourself back in the same bar that called to you in the very beginning of the ongoing saga.
Why the second person? Some feel that “you,” the reader, are drawn more directly and intimately into the story that way. I’m not persuaded by my own experiences as reader. Empirical evidence from self-report and fMRI reveals no significant differences in reader engagement between 2nd and 3rd person fictional texts. Besides, if I had been trying to lure you in, I should stick with the second person throughout the book, preferably with the main character being the one who’s addressing you, like he was telling you a long story while the two of you are sitting at the bar together. But the main characters are the ones who walk out the door together, being stalked by the 3rd person preterite narrator, while “you” remain seated at the bar drinking your beer watching them leave.
A gimmick then, a little writerly flash to open with “you are” before abruptly shifting to “they were”? To tell the truth, I don’t recall why I started the book the way I did. It just seemed right. But here’s what I think now, afterward, as reader.
When about a dozen years ago I first started delving into fiction, I was at the same time thinking about starting a kind of psychological practice. I thought of calling this practice the Salon Postisme. My job title: not therapist, nor analyst, nor counselor — those roles were already too well-defined for my purposes. To preserve ambiguity, I would call myself the Proprietor of the Salon. This practice, this Salon, this profession — they were just as imaginary as the fiction I was writing. I had no clients, and I didn’t have a scheme for recruiting any. But I needed to go beyond theory into praxis. And so I came to think about fiction-writing as a kind of simulation of the practice, an off-line implementation in which my fictional alter-ego would see fictional clients, implementing the praxis of the Salon Postisme.
Here’s an entry from my notebook dated 24 January 2001, in which I recorded the first tentative description of the fiction that I can locate on a cursory search:
The Proprietor is trying to run the Salon Postisme. He is a bit off, earnest, more conservative than what he wants to promote. His destiny is one of futility, exasperation. He sees himself as a poor man’s Nietzsche, wishes he was a sane Artaud. He is European temperamentally, but stuck as an American. The book is about the Proprietor’s efforts to launch the Salon. There are clients who add to the story. Maybe one is an investor, or is a marketing guy. Or, maybe we just follow these people’s differentiation stories in parallel to the hero’s…
But I wasn’t ready to abandon the real-world practice altogether for fiction-writing. My half-page of notes tentatively describing a possible fiction are interspersed with pages and pages outlining theories underpinning the Salon’s raison d’etre, as well as possible praxes to be implemented by the Proprietor — what I refer to repeatedly in my notebooks as “a pragmatics of delirium.” Eventually I would come to merge the fiction and the nonfiction, regarding the fictional version of the Salon as itself a kind of intervention, with the books’ anticipated readers being my clients.
Years passed. I wrote and edited, rewrote and reorganized. The scenario at the beginning of Book 1, where “you” are in the bar, was written long after the events that unfold immediately after the two guys leave the bar, when one of them signs on as Proprietor of the fictional Salon Postisme. So, back to the original question: why the second person present in the opening bar scene? I think now that it’s a nostalgic nod to the time when I regarded the fiction as a kind of intervention, with me being the analyst and the reader being my analysand. I am addressing the reader directly, as if we were having a conversation at the Salon, which in its present instantiation would occur in the bar that calls to you. But the illusion of being present together doesn’t last. Already by the end of the first page I’ve split off a second, preterite narrator who just walked out the door, following those other two guys down the street, leaving you and the first narrator behind to nurse your beers together in present-tense obscurity.
If you google “metaphysics of presence,” the very first link to pop up is my old post about it. I quote Derrida quoting Aristotle:
Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.
Speaking is more immediate than writing, emanating directly from speaker to listener, carrying a presumably more authentic representation of the speaker’s truth. Speech is more present than text. Writing is deferred, transmitting its truths (or its lies) across a gap in both time and space between the writer and the written. Upon its arrival before the reader, the text has traveled so far from its source that it appears autonomous, disconnected from its source, orphaned, an undead letter uncannily appearing to be the source of its own thoughts rather than the bearer of its author’s.
A text written in the second person present tense seems to manifest a metaphysics of presence, but it’s an illusion — a fiction. There is always a temporal gap between the writing and the reading. But what about a text written in the preterite — is it truthfully describing occurrences after the fact, as they transpired in the past? A case can be made for the nonfictional reportage of historical events, but not for fiction surely. The fictional events never happened, so it’s a mistake to regard their written record as a true account.
But isn’t it possible for a writer to record on the page mental experiences that came to mind some time ago? I think about Mozart’s claim that he could hear the music fully realized in his head, that all he had to do was write down what he had already heard. I understand that some fiction writers are able to outline their novels chapter by chapter, scene by scene, such that when they actually sit down to write the novel they need only fill in the details that have already been envisioned. Even if those mental experiences are products of the imagination rather than observations of events the composer or fictionalist witnessed in the real world, they are experiences pulled back from the past being documented subsequent to their occurrence — preteritely.
But what if, instead of transcribing what he’s already imagined in his head, the fictionalist is making it up as he goes along? What if he is documenting events in writing that are taking shape coincidentally with their being written? Then the fictional preterite tense is itself a lie, a grammar as fictional as the content encased in it.
Still, even if the writer is actively inventing a fiction in real time, it is taking shape as words, sentences, paragraphs, pages of written text. The act of inventing happens in the present, but the resulting invention is already a fait accompli as soon as the word hits the page or screen. The leading edge of invention is now, but the now is never really here. The writer is always moving on to the next word, leaning into the future. As the text is written it extends backward in time, the beginning continually receding into the past. As soon as you type THE END at the bottom of the last page, the whole writing process has come to an end and the book is finished. Preterite.
But the text. Having taken on an existence of its own independent of the writer, the text persists in the present. There are those who contend that a text is dead, or at best virtual, until someone reads it, is reading it. In a dialectical metaphysics of presence the text continually comes into existence while it is being read, reader and text jointly bringing the text alive like two guys sitting in the bar talking. But what about the text that sits languishing on the shelf or the hard drive, unread? Maybe it lurks, waiting for the reader to bring it to life. Maybe the already-written text exists only in the future tense…
In a remarkable synchronicity, Craig Hickman of Noir Realism just put up a post about the preterite tense in fiction.