Checking out debut novelist Ed Park’s office-culture novel Personal Days, I was surprised to find it written in First Person Plural — the same odd “we” voice that debut novelist Joshua Ferris chose for last year’s hit office-culture novel Then We Came To The End. Does the “collective voice” have some special relevance for our age? Somehow it does seem to fit the cubicle mentality in Park’s hands:
Whenever we sniff a layoff coming, which is always, each one of us thinks, It can’t be me because ___.
When Lars started with us — six months ago, nine months, a year ago? — he was full of pep, but we managed to squeeze it out of him.
Or in Ferris’s:
We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise.
And yet, reading both novels, I find myself skidding against the device. I like it when writers experiment with narrative stance, and I want to like both of these books. But I work in an office myself, and I don’t find that a plural voice reflects my own generally more anguished experience of cubicle culture. The collective “we” is both limiting and liberating. Park and Ferris tend to rely on the comedy of recognition, of shared experience, and that’s where this stance works. But Fyodor Dostoevsky could have never written in First Person Plural.
Yet the approach does add to the appeal of both novels, and I think it’s best appreciated not as a cultural signifier but as an innovative device. The great television comedy The Office also seems to emanate from a strange, carefully constructed collective narrative stance. The characters in “The Office” seem to be filming some type of cosmic eternal reality show, which is why they make faces at the camera and give furtive interviews between scenes. Yet it’s completely unclear who is watching this reality show and whether or not this reality show exists at all. Like Park’s book and Ferris’s book, “The Office” simply employs an off-center narrative stance as a great hiding place from which to stalk its prey.
The modern craze for First Person Plural reminds me of the craze for Second Person Singular during the “Breakfast Club” literary scene of the 1980’s. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City was ground zero of the “you” craze with this opening line:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.
Many followed, including Lorrie Moore, Don Delillo, Ann Beattie, Nicholson Baker, Julian Barnes and Frederick Barthelme. Hell, I tried it myself, with utterly unsatisfying results. Twenty years later, whatever happened to Second Person Singular? Writers from Chuck Palahniuk to Junot Diaz still use it, but now nobody calls it seminal. I guess the fashion went out with Spy Magazine.
The funny thing about both First Person Plural and Second Person Singular is that, while they are relatively rare occurences in fiction, they are both used widely in song lyrics. First Person Plural:
“We Shall Overcome”
“This is D-Block”
Second Person Singular:
“Don’t You Forget About Me”
“I Got You Babe”
“Do The Hustle”
What narrative stance will be the next big thing in postmodern fiction? I guess we’ll have to wait and find out, won’t we?