‘How to be an Other Woman’ by Lorrie Moore & ‘How to talk to a Hunter’ by Pam Houston

More second person-ers. The second person can manifest in different ways, but often there is the implication that this is a person who has been fractured, made to feel their sense of agency is reduced. ‘How to be an Other Woman’ explores the protagonist’s relationship with a married man, a relationship that causes her increasing feelings of impotence and estrangement.

“In store windows you don’t recognise yourself,” the voice says. “Wonder who you are.” “Gaze into a mirror at a face that looks too puffy to be yours.” Similarly to Houston’s story, there is the sense that the events are happening to the protagonist, rather than something in which she is an active participant. The story is dominated by imperatives: “Feel grey, like an abandoned locker room towel.” Instead of a kind of manual for life, this onslaught implies inevitability – the sonorous thrum of it seems to catch and hold the protagonist in its grip.

As the protagonist, Charlene, commences list making – an attempt to emulate the man’s wife and her proclivity for lists – she loses more of herself, and the futility of the exercise is demonstrated when she gives herself three options – “rip open the front of your coat”; “go into the bathroom”; “go downstairs and wave a cab for home” – but chooses none: “He puts his mouth on your neck. Put your arms timidly around him.” 

In Pam Houston’s ‘How to Talk to a Hunter’ there is a similar inactivity:

When he says “Skins or blankets?” it will take you a moment to realise that he’s asking which you want to sleep under. And in your hesitation he’ll decide that he wants to see your skin wrapped in the big black moose hide. 

Both stories’ characters have an explicit desire for empathy. In Moore’s, Charlene seeks a unity of experience with her coworker, Hilda: “Over Reuben sandwiches ask her if she’s ever had an affair with a married man,” while in Houston’s the protagonist tries to diagnose her feelings as a larger symptom of womanness: “He’ll give you a key, and just like a woman, you’ll think that means something.” 

Houston’s choice of future tense interacts interestingly with the second person; combined with the litany of “you”s the effect is one of prophecy. However, the incompleteness of knowledge betrays this implied omniscience. The prophetic style might promise comfort – this is what will happen; this is certain – but the speculation and gaps that permeate the voice betray a lack of clarity. The speaker can promise the “you” nothing beyond relayed experience, and it is the distance between speaker and listener, between the self and the self, not even supplemented by third-party insight, that makes this so uncomfortable to read. 

First published in Self-Help, FSG/Faber, 1985 and then in the Collected Stories, FSG/Faber, 2008

First published in Quarterly West, 1989 and collected in Cowboys are my Weakness, Washington Square Press, 1992. Also in Best American Short Stories 1990, Houghton Miffin, edited by Richard Ford