Imaginative storytelling, tension and drama linked to how we see the world are what good novels are made of — Zach Wyner does this in: What We Never Had (2016).
But what’s unique about this debut novel isn’t the plot, which is a familiar coming-of-age story — it’s the second-person point of view. Josh, the protagonist, is a 20-something tutor who gives his 20-something friends the specialized help they need as they confront the challenges of post-college life. In describing these relationships, the second person magically provides both intimacy and distance.
In the process of helping others, Joshua sorts his own life and the issue in his life that gets the most attention is a love relationship gone wrong. Josh is preoccupied with trying to please June, his on-and-off girlfriend. In the following scene, she has stood him up, and he’s back in his apartment, alone and thinking about what just occurred and noting that his friends had observed what was happening to him long before he did.
“Your infatuation had been one big humiliation, a blind spot that had obfuscated what everyone else saw coming a mile away.”
Joshua, a tutor and mentor to privileged teenagers in an alternative school, helps the youngsters with their problems. Their privilege, however, does not protect them from the pain of confronting issues everyone faces. We meet a diva who doesn’t think she’s smart enough; we meet kids who are considered odd and whose only goal is to fit in.
“It was the paradox of privilege — take what you need to survive until what you need to survive takes you.”
In the following passage, Wyner uses the second person to capture an experience incarcerated readers will recognize – what it’s like to be isolated when all you have for a window on the world is a 13-inch television set:
“The hum of the ceiling fan obliterated the voices from the television, and you remembered what it was like to be all alone — just you and a modest, clean, quiet multi-level room that the outside world was content to ignore.”
Wyner is particularly skilled at pointing out paradoxes. While Joshua takes one of his dead-beat roommates to a job interview, once again the second person narration puts the reader in the scene:
“You navigated the Whole Foods parking lot with caution; sparkling Lexuses and hulking Escalades circled like hawks, their owners frantic to return to vacant work stations or little children, left in the charge of some matronly, woefully underpaid housekeeper. Amare denounced the drivers as either yuppie, fascist, or liberal scum depending upon their vehicle’s miles per gallon.”
Wyner’s descriptive language immerses the reader in the environment – the book is set in the San Fernando Valley — and his selection of detail has a way of revealing his characters’ personalities. In the following scene, Joshua and his roommates are in a sports bar.
“The feeble light that seeped through the stained glass windows betrayed no hint as to the time of day; its provenance could just as easily be in a streetlight or noonday sunshine. Half a dozen moribund regulars huddled over their drinks, rooting through the remnants of ravaged popcorn bags and gazing at the Dodgers game on the muted television set. You happily took your seat amongst them.”
As Joshua struggles over what to do about his relationship with the difficult June—should he go after her or should he leave her alone?—he uses the analogy of an artist with a work of art as a way of rationalizing pursuing her.
“When an artist finishes a poem or a painting and they put it aside for a period of time, their return to the work accommodates a new perspective and clarifies what they were trying to express.”
But, to the relief of this reader, he decides to move on. When Joshua finally realized that it was best for him to let June live her life the way she wanted to, he concluded that, his “Survival was possible through avoidance.”
Ultimately, though, this unique book is not about avoidance. Through his characters, Wyner deftly touches universal themes: human longing for purpose, for love and community, and for a place in the world.
Juan’s Book Review