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To Assume a Pleasing Shape (American Readers Series)

Joseph Salvatore

Joseph Salvatore playfully experiments with various perspectives in his anthology, To Assume a Pleasing Shape, including the hard to achieve and often avoided second-person point of view showcased in both “Late Thaw” and “Subjunctive Mood.”  In the aforementioned literary works, by using the pronoun “you,” he addresses the reader directly, which allows the reader to engage with the text on a deeper level.  It produces an experience very different from other pieces that contain first and third person point of views. It eliminates the emotional distance between the reader and the main character, allowing the reader to experience the narrator’s perspective while simultaneously forcing us to explore our own emotions. We, as readers are no longer on the outside looking in; we are fully immersed in the character’s world, the setting, both past and present tense. In essence, on some level, we are the characters, which is what makes them so sympathetic.

The second-person is a narrative mode in which the narrator tells the story, usually of the main character, through the addressee’s (usually the reader) point of view by using the pronoun “you.” It’s rare in all genres of literature, in fiction and nonfiction alike. It is mostly employed in instructional pieces, such as self-help books or manuals. One might even be familiar with its use in role-playing games or choose your adventure books. It is also sometimes used in poems and songs, and often used in advertising.

The second-person narrative often evokes one of three moods used in English. First, the indicative mood is used when one makes a factual statement or poses a question; second, the imperative mood, meaning the author uses it to express a direct request or command; finally, the subjunctive mood, which is rarely used in writing, but when it is, it is used to show a wish, doubt, or anything else contrary to fact by using verbs without endings. I hope your synapses are firing at the connections here!  Salvatore takes on two rarities in literary technique regarding his use of second-person point of view and subjunctive mood in his piece titled, “The Subjunctive Mood.”

Why are both of these techniques considered the proverbial white-unicorns of literature? First, in regards to the second-person narrative, authors rarely speak to the reader. It’s a risky choice, but usually, it’s made with a specific objective in mind. It makes the story more personal and intimate. The second-person narrative is avoided because it usually limits the audience through direct feelings or through the use of assigned traits attributed to said character, involving gender, age, social, and societal contexts. For example, though we can empathize with the main character in the “Late Thaw,” we’re not all middle-aged widowers. It’s for this reason it’s often avoided in literature since by using second-person it has a tendency to seem forced and even foreign, with the reader thinking “I’m not a man/woman” or “I wouldn’t do that” or “I don’t feel that” so instead of strengthening the bond between the character and the reader, it creates conflict and prohibits full immersion in the story.

In “Late Thaw,” Salvatore successfully avoids this by walking the fine line of ambiguity to avoid defining the reader’s emotions themselves, and he makes it relatable by tackling a subject known and understood by all, death and loss. In “Late Thaw,” Salvatore’s genius is that he doesn’t define the main character’s emotions. He never directly states whether the main character is sad, angry or depressed. He alludes to these feelings by presenting the reader with background and intimate details, allowing the reader to replace the main character’s emotions with his or her own. It’s up to the reader to come to his or her own emotional understanding of the character’s situation. To really understand how the second-person narrative is effective in “Late Thaw” let’s go on a shortened version of Salvatore’s presented emotional journey. In the following quotes notice the absence of directly penned emotion; these lines are designed not to define, but to build an emotional response in the reader:

“Who thinks of these things as you eat a peanut butter sandwich and your wife is lacing up her Nikes in the kitchen.”

“[Y]ou’re eating a sandwich made from the bread you were supposed to use for the stuffing for a turkey that will sit in your freezer frozen for seven months until now because it was she who had touched it last, she would had brought it home a week before her run and cleared out the freezer shelf and pushed the frozen bird in, and who thinks these things.”

“[W]ho thinks these things that this man would use nylon rope that could so easily be traced back to Home Depot in New Jersey.”

“[W]ho thinks these things that her legs you had helped stretch just hours before would be cold to the touch and so would her feet.”

“And who things these things that those small scars that you had touched and traced and kissed might have gleamed for just a moment in the beam of a searching flashlight? …Who thinks such things? And for how much longer?”

Many times, throughout the story each important section that requires visualization which inevitably leads to reader-defined emotions, contains the line, “Who thinks these things?” That begs the question, what are these things that we think of. Yes, these things are the memories the main character keeps going over in his mind, but these things are also the things that “you,” the reader, thinks of, and in an indirect way, these things are your emotions.

Salvatore’s brilliance lies in mastering the power of inference, by never outright defining the readers’ emotions, making his pieces subject to subjectivity. That is why so many readers emotionally respond to this piece. In a way we, as readers, are allowed to create the grieving widower’s emotions in our own private way, within the realms of our own contexts. On some level we are the main character, thus, it makes the main character in the story sympathetic to the maximum degree possible: as sympathetic as we, ourselves would be.

The genius of this piece can be summed up in the pluralistic meaning of its title, “Late Thaw.”  The title not only refers to the literal late thawing of the frozen bread, the last thing the wife touched, but it is also the symbolic representation referring to the thawing of the main character’s emotions seven months after the tragedy occurred; and in a more abstract way, the late thaw is also the slow reveal of the late climax, which allows us as readers to discover, in conjunction with the narrator, our own emotions.

The subjunctive mood, literature’s other white unicorn, is used to express something contrary to fact, a wish, or when posing a hypothetical question. A good indicator of the subjunctive is the use of the following words: if, whether, wish in conjunction with a noun or pronoun (example: I wish), could, would, should, might and may. If the author invokes the subjunctive mood in his or her work, the author relinquishes a bit of control over the story and it can be seen as a bit vague. This could be why it is avoided since some authors like to be in control of their character’s past, present, and future. In Salvatore’s case, within his story, appropriately titled “The Subjunctive Mood,” he uses the subjunctive mood, the hypothetical in conjunction with the second-person narrative when addressing “you,” as the reader. It’s as if the narrator were talking to “you,” as a close friend or confidant, telling “you” of a situation between himself and his love interest and he requests “you” to hypothetically (subjunctive mood) put yourself in his shoes by asking, “[w]hat would you do? If you were me?” The piece even begins by defining the subjunctive mood, “(I) [a] condition contrary to fact; (2) an expression of a wish (3) a command or request: e.g.,” The e.g., which means, for example, is used to segue into the story. Just in case it’s not literal enough for you, he titles the piece, “The Subjunctive Mood.” He all but slaps you in the face with it to make sure you understand the mood of the piece.

In “Subjunctive Mood” the second-person narrative is successful for a slightly different reason compared to “Late Thaw,” and it’s because he invokes the hypothetical-subjunctive mood. In the “Subjunctive Mood,” Salvatore plays with the second-person narrative switching from you, to we/us, and back to you. His final switch is the most interesting because “you” could be “you” the reader, you the main character, or you as if he’s addressing the woman, his object of desire in his thoughts. I say in his thoughts because right before the switch from “we” to “you, the last line reads, “[t]he exchange is followed by more silence,” it seems as if nothing else is spoken. That said, even when playing with the narrative, Salvatore makes sure he maintains some separation between the reader and character. Simultaneously “you” is still “you,” the reader, but “you” is also indirectly him, the character, which allows this character to get his own feelings across without making “you” own said feelings.  By allowing these separate identities, by not forcing you or dictating to you how you feel, it allows them to naturally become entwined. You are never pushed into his beliefs in the “Subjunctive Mood” you don’t have to agree with his assertions or his choices, or like how he carries himself. This is shown when the narrator poses to you, the reader, a series of questions and asks your opinion at the end of the story:

“Q: What would you do if you were me? Plead your case, say it was entirely your own original joke, argue that you must be tapped into some cosmic-comic funniness that all Iowan poets and prehistoric men understand? Or say, “Ok, yes, I did hear the joke elsewhere. Who hasn’t? How could you have not? Perhaps, it was at camp, or on some TV show, I can’t recall. But, I’m sorry. I wanted to tell you sooner, but you seemed so amused; everything was perfect; and weren’t we happy? Didn’t you like me just a little bit more? Find my lazy eye just a little less disconcerting? Feel comfortable having merry new sex because I too am funny and attractive? Like you. And don’t you like me more than the me whom I don’t let you see? Can’t I be forgiven for trying to stave off the inevitable? What would you do? If you were me?”

By asking you what you would do, Salvatore allows you to disagree. You are free to both view and approach this conflict differently. By posing a hypothetical, Salvatore overtly allows readers their own opinions, and even if these opinions deviate from the character’s, the readers are not forced to feel separated from the story. By evoking the subjunctive mood, Salvatore eliminates the alienating internal self-conflict that the second-person narrative often creates within the reader.

This last paragraph is also Salvatore’s postmodern coup de grace if you will. We are made to imagine ourselves, in a post-modern ironic twist as the main character, who in turn is imagining himself as the joking-telling and joke-failing Fred Flintstone. The irony is in the implication that we learn how to be human through Fred, a fictitious character, a prehistoric parody of life itself! In this piece, the use of the subjunctive mood makes an unverified, undefined future possible, meaning we can imagine a future different from the present. Unlike its modern predecessors, it’s a story without an ending. Salvatore does not disclose what happens. He refuses to wrap it up and hand it over to us with a neat little bow. Instead he has the main character pose a series of questions to us, as readers, with possible conflicting resolutions, which leaves it open to interpretation and ultimately allows us, as readers, to create our own imagined ending, a post-modern ending where the subjunctive mood and second-person meet, an ending that openly invites opinion, provokes discussion and begs “you” for further exploration—”What would you do? If you were me?”

In the end, the second-person narrative in a way forces readers to internalize what they read in a first person perspective, which causes them to identify with the character on a very intimate level. It is seen as a bit presumptuous because it often dictates how the reader is supposed to feel. The writer is the proverbial puppet-master, but instead of making his or her characters dance, by using the second person narrative it’s the readers that are caught in the author’s strings. This is why it can feel forced, uncomfortable, and almost foreign. These are the reasons second person is usually avoided in formal and academic writing because these rope-tightening dictations can have a noose-like effect.  Within a short-story medium, using the hypothetical, and by steering clear of defining the readers’ emotions, Joseph Salvatore successfully avoids the stagnation of form, alienation of the reader, and the limitation of emotions the second-person narrative often creates. Instead of becoming an unwilling marionette, Salvatore uses his craft to subtly whittle the reader into more of a free-thinking, free-feeling Pinocchio. He allows us, within the context of each story, some control over the character’s emotional and hypothetical destinies making Salvatore simultaneously the God-like creator, Geppetto and the Blue Fairy of liberation.  In essence, it’s Salvatore’s successful use of the second-person and the subjunctive that makes these characters “real” boys and girls, for they are the reflection of the readers themselves.

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