I spent last weekend totally engrossed in this book. I don’t even remember turning the pages. Its worldview is microscopic rather than macroscopic – the plot unfolds over approximately 1-2 weeks, and we’re focused throughout on a protagonist about whom we know almost nothing – and the protagonist’s past intrudes on the present only very rarely. Its unnamed protagonist strikes me as a female Frederic Henry, adrift in an unfamiliar world.
This novel is written in the second person. I think I’ve read a few novels and stories written in second person over the years, but aside from a few Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books back in elementary school, this novel may be the first one I’ve enjoyed. The second person point of view – used not to refer to a particular listener but to the speaker or narrator herself – bothers me because it’s imprecise. In real life, “you” often means “me and everyone who agrees with me, which I assume to mean everyone in the world,” as in “The last thing you expect on your vacation is a thunderstorm.” This was a huge pet peeve of mine as a teacher. “You” is meant to refer to a specific, known audience. I don’t like pronouns that ask me to infer things. Bossy pronouns have a way of making you (wait – me) feel put upon.
This novel – in spite of the fact that its point of view constantly tries to deflect attention off of itself and back onto “you” – stays painfully close to its protagonist, closer even than most first-person novels. The protagonist is never called by her name. This is yet another strategy I have a history of disliking. I forgive Ralph Ellison, somewhat grudgingly, and have been known to be nasty in classes and workshops when protagonists are known only as “he” or “she.” It occurs to me, though, that there is something sad and desperate in the second person pronoun that isn’t present in the third person. The second person is begging for an intimacy with the reader that it is too shy to ask for directly.
In this novel, the ploy worked. I felt an intimacy with the protagonist from the beginning and was happy to follow her through a dozen or so aimless days in Casablanca, Morocco, even when she makes some bizarre decisions. As the novel begins, we know that the protagonist is recently divorced and that she has planned a trip to several cities in Morocco as a way of escaping the misery of her daily life. We also learn early on that she is a twin – that ever since she was an embryo, coupledom has been part of her essential reality.
Before the events of the novel start to turn against the protagonist, it is already clear that she feels cursed: “You tip the driver with a twenty-dollar bill. Later, you will wonder if this was your initial mistake” (9), she remarks (or you remark – I can’t even figure out how to write about this character properly; the second-person narration warps everything, though in fascinating ways). There are other omniscient moments like these – whispers from the voice that says “later” – and I suppose that this is another advantage of the second-person point of view. A first-person narrator by definition can’t be omniscient.
The first thing that happens to the protagonist after she overtips the driver is that her backpack is stolen. She is checking into her hotel in Casablanca when she looks away for a moment and then turns her head again to find that her backpack – which contains her wallet, passport, and credit cards – is gone. Security camera footage confirms the theft, and the hotel staff put her in touch with the local police. At the police station the next day, a detective approaches her triumphantly and announces that they have located her backpack. He hands her a black backpack that is similar to hers but not exactly the same; this pack, of course, contains someone else’s ID and credit cards. The protagonist is asked to sign a statement saying that her property has been returned to her, and she does. This is one of those moments when I was screeching at the protagonist not to do something so terribly stupid – but of course she didn’t listen. At the time I couldn’t fathom why she would do such a thing – essentially, confess to identity theft and leave behind any possibility of getting her own property back without repercussions – but as the novel progresses, I came to realize that the protagonist – either innately or as a result of recent trauma in her personal life – is drawn to risk-taking behavior. Not risk-taking in the physical sense – bungee jumping and so forth – but risk-taking in the quiet sense. Risk-taking in the paperwork sense. Of course, it’s also true that on some level she doesn’t want her identity back; the chance to be someone else is literally handed to her in a black backpack, and she accepts not only the backpack but a new name: Sabine Alyse.
The protagonist does visit the American embassy, but what can she possibly do there? She can’t show them a stranger’s passport. She leaves, promising to return with the proper documentation. When she returns to her hotel, she checks out and uses Sabine Alyse’s credit card to pay for a night at a more exclusive and expensive hotel, knowing all along that she is leaving herself deeply vulnerable to getting caught using the card fraudulently. She compares herself to her twin: “Unlike your sister, whose brain is a beehive, and who has excelled at continuously planning her next step, you have always been good at staring out of windows for long periods of time. You try not to calculate how much of your life you have wasted doing exactly what you are doing now” (73). The fact that this novel is not divided into chapters but meanders right along with the thoughts of its meandering protagonist mirrors this quality. It’s as if the protagonist’s brain is divided in two: the part that understands how the world works (that identity theft is a serious crime, that the U.S. embassy would have helped her if she had only gone there instead of to the police station, that she never should have signed the release at the police station, etc.) and the part that absorbs this knowledge yet acts against it anyway.
When she moves into the more elite hotel, the protagonist is approached by a woman she calls “the practical secretary” and offered an unusual job. A film crew is making a movie in the hotel and in Casablanca as a whole, and the stand-in for the star has just quit to go home to manage a family crisis. The protagonist bears a strong resemblance to the star (again, that motif of pairing, of twins, of coupledom; again, a chance for the protagonist to distance herself from her true identity), and she accepts the job readily, recognizing it as a chance to earn enough money to settle her debts in Morocco and fly home. As a few days pass, the star (usually called “the famous American actress”; the star doesn’t have a name either) reaches out to the protagonist socially, and they begin getting together for drinks, for coffee, for dinner. These get-togethers are always initiated by the actress, who sometimes seems to be in the middle of a manic episode or something similar, yet it is the actress who pushes the protagonist to reveal bits and pieces of her real life in the U.S. To the reader the protagonist reveals nothing, but to the actress, she confesses to overwhelming anger and humiliation (“In the minds of people who knew us – and even people who didn’t – I failed. It’s horrific and humiliating on so many levels” ).
With all the costuming and acting in these scenes, the narrator’s confusions about her identity are developed in detail. She adapts easily to being called by the name of the previous stand-in (the film crew calls her “the new Ivy” ) and makes convoluted statements to herself like “You are putting on a wig so you more closely resemble the way you looked before you weren’t you” (109). She begins to think of herself as a true replica of the actress, though she also berates herself for not embodying the actress’s glamor and stage presence: “You watch the famous American actress go through the scene you just rehearsed and you can see all your shortcomings and failures. You were pretending to be Maria; she inhabits Maria” (114). The actress serves at times as a stand-in for the reader, when she asks questions about the protagonist’s past and demands answers that we have no way of demanding, and at times she becomes conflated with the protagonist’s twin: “You get the feeling that the famous American actress wants something from you, that her extending of friendship toward you is calculated. When your sister was most effusive in her kindness toward you, it was because she needed something” (126). Elsewhere, the protagonist’s experience as a stand-in gives her what Nick Carraway calls “satisfactory glimpses of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world is founded securely on a fairy’s wing,” except that in the protagonist’s case these glimpses are less satisfactory and more unsettling, as when she is traveling to the set of the day’s filming and notes that “you are stuck in real traffic making your way to the manufactured traffic” (127).
Of course, even without a movie star and a film crew present, any novel set in Casablanca is going to set off alarm bells for American readers – or for followers of American cinema anywhere. I’m not sure I’ve seen Casablanca all the way through even once in my life, but even I know that it’s about American expats during World War II, savoring a brief sojourn in the Moroccan city while also making wrenching choices between the present and the past, between personal love and political loyalty, between anonymity and glory, and between the taking of meaningful risks and the urge to burrow away unseen and wait out the war in safety. “Casablanca” is also Spanish for “white house,” and in this novel this reference is not a political call to arms but a hint at the possibility of a blank slate. The protagonist in this novel does not just face an opportunity for any blank slate, but for a blank slate that is specifically domestic – as indicated by the “casa” in “Casablanca.” Not once does this novel enter a private home; all of its scenes take place in public spaces or in hotel rooms, and all of its major characters are hiding their true identities under layers of pretense.
I admire this novel so much. Its language is evocative and precise, and its author is so skilled with well-crafted figurative language (“Your brain feels like it’s just been broken into seven continents” ) and haunting imagery, such as the moment when the protagonist is climbing the steps to the police station on her way to becoming Sabine Alyse, and she passes, inexplicably, a couple leaving the station pushing a stroller with no child in it, no child anywhere in sight. The protagonist is struck by the sight of this couple and wonders about their story, and the image is striking enough to stay with reader long enough for us (or me? or you?) to recognize where the arrow in this image is pointing – and of course, because this author is so shrewd and subtle, the arrow points directly into the protagonist’s own past, which we do learn about eventually, and this revelation makes the experience of wading through all the ambiguity in the novel’s opening pages more than worthwhile.
I recommend this novel highly, even for those who think reading a novel written in the second person sounds like a bit of a headache. We were wrong about that – or I was. Or you were.