Quick! Name your top five novels written in the second person……struggling? Tope three? Two? Name any novel told in the second person….yeah, they’re few and far between. The reason being that they’re so awkward to read.
Instead of the traditional first (“I went to the shops”) or third (“Zelda went to the shops”) person narratives which see someone narrate a story to you, the second person sees the narrator tell you what you are doing (“You go to the shops”). It’s very strange to read and incredibly off-putting.
It can work of course, if rarely, but I feel to be effective, it requires the character in the novel to be left vague, a blank canvas that the reader can project themselves onto. This is one of the major problems with Halting State, instead of this blank canvas we’re given three protagonists, a police officer, a game programmer and an insurance fraud investigator, three very specific roles. It’s hard enough for the reader to comfortably slip into one of these characters let alone all three. Add in the fact that each character is pretty lacking in personality and you get the feeling that the author is trying to have his cake and eat it. Giving us an ensemble cast with specific niche careers suited to a first of third person narrative but with the lack of personality suited to the second person narrative.
All of this just ends up in a text that’s jarring and awkward to read. Eventually I had to just give up on the second person narrative and train my brain to ignore it but by that point I was pretty deep into the novel and felt a little lost.
Due to each character having such specific jobs, each one comes with a lot of technical jargon and industry buzzwords. These are presented for the most part without exposition. In an interview at the back of the book, the author attempted to justify it by saying he wants to write a very tech heavy type of sci-fi and that’s fine, but there’s a problem with this.
It suits the second person narrative to present these technical terms without exposition. We, as the reader, are supposed to be taking on these roles, so as a police woman who has been on the force for ten years, we should already know what these technical terms mean and therefore wouldn’t be constantly reminding ourselves of their definition. However, there’s the problem that, in real life, the reader isn’t (or at least is very unlikely to be) a police woman with ten years experience so we need that exposition (and then, even if by some stroke of luck you are a police woman with said experience, you’re still not going to be a male game programmer and will therefore struggle with that characters technical terms).
Too often I was confronted with a paragraph where someone rambles off a whole list of technical jargon, code names and colloquialisms and the main character just nods and gets on with them. I was left feeling like I’d eavesdropped on a conversation and felt totally lost with no idea of what the character was going to do.
The actual story of the novel is interesting enough, the main characters are hired to sort out a robbery that occurs in a “World of Warcraft” style game but the case ends up bleeding into the real world when people start going missing. It’s decent, but the major problems surrounding the second person narrative really ruined this book to me and the aforementioned problems regarding the exposition left me, even at the books climax, struggling to understand any of what I had just read.
I imagine this book would appeal to a very specific group of people, but I’m not entirely sure who those people are. For most people, the problems with this novel will drastically outweigh the positives. It’s an awkward read with a plot that frankly, isn’t worth the effort of digging through these problems to get to.