Our first Roundtable of September examines “A Chance in Hell,” by Corinne Reilly. Visiting a combat hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Reilly shows the endless challenges of trauma medicine just a helicopter flight away from the front lines. The project, which includes photos and video by Ross Taylor, ran last month in The Virginian-Pilot.
For full bios of the Roundtable editors, see our introductory post.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
I’m intrigued by Corinne Reilly’s use of “you” in the last section of her story. The second person perspective often results in awkward, self-conscious writing. The last time I can recall it being used to decent effect – more or less – was in Jay McInerney’s 1984 novel, “Bright Lights, Big City.”
(For a list of notable second person narratives, check out this Wikipedia page.)
But Reilly’s use of “you” is a stroke of genius, elevating an already strong piece of reportage to one that resonates deeply. Here’s why I think it works:
The reporter remains disciplined. As a narrator, Reilly keeps herself out of the story until the final section. Many writers would be tempted to tell the entire story in first person (“This is what I experienced, and I lived to tell the tale!”), but Reilly is wiser. Like most good narrative reporters, she checks her ego at the door and restricts herself to being a fly on the wall (to mix metaphors). When she does introduce the second person, she uses it sparingly.
The reporter surprises us. Reilly recounts the story in taut documentary style up until the final passage – and then the second person comes out of nowhere:
Looking at him now, quiet and still for the first time since he arrived, you begin to notice things about him besides his terrible wounds.
You notice how young his face is. You notice that he’s tall.
You notice his muscles, how lean and toned he is.
You figure he has to be an athlete.
Maybe he is – was – a football player.
You notice the two words scrawled on the back of his forearm, and you wonder whether, after this, he’d get them tattooed there again: “No regrets.”
It’s jarring. It makes the reader pause. And then it works, because it is jarring: The narrator is shocked to remember that, even in a situation that would desensitize most people, she and the people she is writing about are thinking, feeling human beings.
The reporter presents an epiphany. Reilly doesn’t dwell on her feelings, because they aren’t really the point, at least not in this story. Instead, she uses the second person perspective to present an epiphany: After wondering about the wounded soldier’s future from her own perspective and that of others in the room with her, the narrator suddenly reveals that, unlike so many wounded before him, this soldier is someone the trauma team knows.
You think about the long recovery, all the rehab, the prosthesis. You wonder what he dreamed about doing after the Army and whether he’ll still be able to do it.
Then you realize you’ve seen him before.
The reporter connects with the reader. By using the second person, Reilly avoids the more exclusive “I” and allows the reader to imagine being there in the operating room with the doctors and nurses. We can all relate to moments when we observe a person – someone we initially think of as a stranger – in one context and then suddenly recognize them from another context. It’s a universal moment, and one that brings a deeper sense of humanity to Reilly’s excellent storytelling.
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism
I’ll start with a dare: Read Part 1 of “A Chance in Hell.” Now try not to read the rest.
I had little intention of reading all five parts of Reilly’s series in one sitting. I figured I’d read Part 1 for purposes of this forum, then set aside the others to get to … someday. I had all the same excuses all readers do: Behind on my work. Errands to run. Friends to see. Tired. And not thrilled about reading yet another war story.
An hour and all five parts later, I am pondering why some stories are easy to put down, and why others pull you in and don’t let you go. (Why is it easier to figure out the former than the latter?)
Reilly has some particular challenges here. Among them: Multiple characters, an over-the-top subject, and the need to balance narrative and exposition (show vs. tell). I’m going to address each briefly.
Multiple characters. If I have an editor’s tweak about this series, it would focus on the opening grafs. I had a little too much trouble following the action. Doctors, flight medics, corpsmen, surgeons, nurses, the patient. Inside, outside, doors, helicopters. It took me awhile to realize the medic came in to brief the docs before the wounded soldier was wheeled in. But Reilly held it together, against those odds, with that wailing. And then once I was past that little hurdle, the story spooled out smoothly, blending the necessary chaos of the trauma hospital with the structural devices that turn characters into individuals (dialog, titles, roles and reminders).
I ended Part 1 thinking the piece was going to be just about Eddie Ward. But as the series went on, the power became the number of Eddie Wards who came through, and the focus was correctly on the medical community who takes this incoming, day after day after sordid day. The postscript at the end, about Ward and the other standout characters, was a simple but brilliant touch.
Subject. High-stakes hospital situations offer natural and dramatic narrative, but can be a turn-off if overdone. Reilly uses all five physical senses when reporting, including smell (a very powerful tool), and dares to use the sixth sense – emotion. But note how she doesn’t overdo. With the exception of necessary but spare description of grisly wounds, she usually errs on the side of understatement. She makes minimal use of descriptive adjectives. In the most horrific scenes, she tends to just state, simply, what she sees, hears, wonders. That allows me to see, hear, wonder, but not to be pushed past tolerance.
Narrative vs. Exposition. This is a fascinating study of news narrative, versus more pure narrative or fiction. Reilly starts us in a scene – a very dramatic scene. She returns to scenes often. But she probably spends as much or more time on exposition: explaining how the hospital works, the status of the war, who the subjects are, how this place has come to be and why it’s (sadly) special. I am not just dragged into an emotional soup; I learn a ton along the way: about the war, about this aspect of the U.S. military presence and about medical care.
It would be tempting to stay with or over-torque the narrative (scenes, action, description, emotion), and you could argue it always offers a more gripping read to do so. But Reilly’s in-and-out pacing carries me along the storyline while giving me both relief and enlightenment. Some patches use dialog that puts me in the scene, some more traditional quotes that offer stand-back observation. Some are in-the-moment, some are quick backstory. A good documentary would work the same way: camera close-ups of action and scenes, with pull-backs to commentary and context. That in-and-out is also what allows her to include multiple characters without losing the center of the series. News reporters who want to cover important issues and write narrative would be smart to study this approach to learn how each can enhance the other.
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