22 November 2010

Day 240: A Prayer for the Dying

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan.  ISBN: 9780805061475.

Spoiler alert, I give away some major plot points... but they are things you should probably know about before deciding to read this book anyway

First off, apologies to Christy from A Good Stopping Point who commented on my general update announcing I was going to read this title.  I know you were looking forward to my posts and that you like the book, but... me... not so much.  And the big reason: writing in second person.  I did make a point of finishing it specifically because you commented; otherwise this probably would have landed on my "I Give Up" pile.  I will go ahead and explain my reasoning for my distaste for second person today; tomorrow I will discuss Jacob Hansen's (or "my") views on duty to the dead versus the living.  I will go ahead and explain my reasoning for my distaste for second person today, tomorrow I will discuss Jacob Hansen's (or "my") views on duty to the dead versus the living.  Because of the nature of the first topic, this post will be a little reviewy, a little ranty, and possibly even a little angry.  We like those posts, though, don't we?  ...and now I'm writing in collective pronouns, thanks O'Nan... thanks a lot.

So.  I don't like novels written in second person.  I especially don't like novels written in second person where I feel like the author is trying to get me to sympathize with a character.  Either I will or I won't, and no amount of forcing me into his role will make me like him.  And by the way, I didn't.  Part of the problem with writing in second person is assuming that your reader will be able to identify with enough characteristics of the character that they can easily put themselves in the shoes of said character.  This is difficult when your reader happens to be a 25 year old female with no experience of having authority over a small town, who was born in 1985, who has never been to war, doesn't have a child, isn't a Christian with a strong belief in a "Guy in the Sky" kind of a god, and who is mentally stable enough not to keep living with dead loved ones no matter how much she loved them.  Oh yeah, "spoiler" alert, by the way.

It's not that I had a problem with the subject matter of the book, it's that every time Jacob/"I" had to make a decision, he always made the one I would never have made and likely caused more harm than good.  It was jarring and frustrating on multiple levels because not only did I feel that this story was forced on me, but it also felt that Jacob's decisions were forced on me.  Maybe O'Nan was trying to make me feel the hopelessness of Jacob's position, but I already felt that and you know what?  I already have my own hopelessness to deal with, so thanks a lot you big jerk for forcing your character's hopelessness on me AND his weird, weird "coping" mechanism over the death of his wife and child.

This is really a shame, because I think O'Nan has a really good hand with prose and his dialog isn't bad.  Unfortunately I couldn't enjoy it because it was less than aparagraph long and then I would get jolted back out of the scene by sentences like the one in the following paragraph,
"The cranberry bogs west of town are parched, burned brown.  Dragonflies slice by, wings shimmering.  It's good to be moving, and you stand up on the pedals and race a scarlet tanager, winning when he lights on a fencepost, but even as you slow, letting the breeze cool you, you know you're trying not think of the soldier, of the awful possibilities."   Page 43.
This is a pretty good description.  It does a number of things: it gives you a little bit of scenery of the town, it tells you how fast the man is going, and it tells you what he's thinking about... or rather trying not to think about.  Unfortunately it would have been much more digestible to me if all the "you's" in that last sentence had been replaced with Jacob or he/him, O'Nan could have brought in a little more description about Jacob riding the bicycle here and it could have been a much stronger paragraph.  Here's probably how I would have rewritten this:
"The cranberry bogs west of town are parched, burned brown.  Dragonflies slice by, wings shimmering.  Jacob thinks how good it is to be moving, stands up on the pedals to race a scarlet tanager, picking up speed while trying to keep the small bird in the corner of his eye.  He slows when he sees that the bird has won when it lights on a fencepost.  The breeze cools him as he coasts, regaining his breath, and trying not to think of the dead solider, and the awful possibilities."
It still keeps the poetic language, it does not detract at all from O'Nan's style or prose to write in third person, and it would be much easier to accept the more... grotesque scenes that occur later in the book.  Instead O'Nan has me worked up because yet another person is trying to tell me what to do with my life and what I "should have done" after all the bad stuff has already happened.

Two words: not helpful.

Gee, of course you know what I should have done, because you aren't the one who had to make the decisions I had to make and so you get to sit on your happy ass and judge based on what happened instead of actually doing something to be helpful or being supportive of my decision.  Trust me, I already know I made mistakes, I already know that things have gone to shit, I now know that I should have stayed in school longer or stuck it out at the insurance company longer and made more money or I should have gone back to temping months ago, but you know what: Not helpful.  These are things that I cannot change now, and having someone force me to relive that feeling of hopeless anxiety and guilt that I "did the wrong thing" just pisses me off.  Maybe if I had read this at a different time I wouldn't have been as frustrated with it as I am now... but somehow I doubt it.

If you want to tell me a story, tell me a story.  Don't drag me along through the mire of your character's mess and expect me to be happy or enjoy or even appreciate being shoved into a fatalistic spiral of inescapable death.  If you want to write in second person, stick to essays; that is where the second person belongs, and I would definitely be interested in reading an essay on O'Nan's thoughts regarding a duty to the dead in times of crises for the living.

I agree with this short, but apt review from a fellow Goodreader.  Also... does anyone else think of Freddy Kreuger with this cover?


  1. Of course I'm sorry that you didn't enjoy it! Thanks for sticking it out and sharing your thoughts. It sounds like it just wasn't a good fit.

    I think you've hit on the make-or-break elements of the story here: the second-person narration and the 'ick' factor. For me the second-person narration did not come across as author aggression, forcing me to be complicit. I thought - in this case - it brought me more inside the story, the almost apocalyptic atmosphere. I don't think I would have liked the book as much without the second-person perspective. I really am a fan of the book and happily champion it to other readers. However, perhaps I need to add more cautioning in my recommendation due to the divisive response to it.

  2. No worries, Christy. I ultimately had the choice about whether or not to finish it. On some level I'm glad I did. And I may be overly sensitive to being "brought into the story." I think I prefer being an observer and/or choosing how much of the story I want to be part of. Perhaps there's another O'Nan you can recommend that would better fit my reading tastes... I am rather selective.

  3. Unfortunately, I haven't loved any of O'Nan's other books that I've tried. I liked - but did not love - Snow Angels and his collection of short stories, In the Walled City.

  4. I'll have to take a glance at those and see if I want to read them at some point. Thanks for the recommendations. :-)


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