posted by James Reel
The Guardian has published a short appreciation of the first lines of novels that reminds me of something I wrote on the subject long, long ago …
To Begin, Kick A Hole In A Stained Glass Window
I like a novel that, once nestled in my hands, throws open its cover and shouts, "Honey, I'm home!" I like a confident, grand entrance, a first sentence that announces itself with a flourish, takes charge, shakes up the place.
Few novels begin so boldly. Which has little to do with the quality of the tale that follows. Like the poor but honest boy who overcomes disadvantage and adversity to make good, a remarkable book may overcome a drab beginning. William Faulkner, for example, tended to open with some fairly ordinary scene-setting, often with a reference to light. Half the time Raymond Chandler would do something even duller, pointing out some ordinary building in the most ordinary way.
Nor do great first lines necessarily spawn great novels. You often get the feeling that, like the aspiring but untalented novelist in Alfred Uhry's grossly overrated play The Last Night of Ballyhoo, the author has squeezed every last drop of her creative juices into the initial sentence, and nothing but dry pulp follows.
A novel's first sentence can be the hardest part to write, and so it usually ends up being little more than a stretch at the barre before the real pirouettes and leaps begin. It rather mechanically starts to depict a setting, or introduces a character by lineage or locale. Contemporary American novelists almost never dare to begin with some sweeping observation, like Tolstoy's celebrated "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Modern Americans dare not philosophize right off the bat; in fact, it's terribly unfashionable to make a bold statement anywhere in a novel. Ours is now a literature of reticence and evasion. So an audacious opening line is arresting not just for its style, but for its novelty.
Consider this pratfall entrance from Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor: "'All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,' says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880)."
In a single sentence, Nabokov parodies our history of bungled translation of Russian into English (he typically fabricates the bibliographic details), and broadly hints that we've entered a parallel universe where familiar things are somehow out of kilter. It's the perfect fanfare for this particular novel.
A more serious philosophic pronouncement lurks at the beginning of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House: "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream." The statement initially seems quite rational, even clinical. Its topic, though, is disturbing, and the concluding clause, bringing in the dream lives of insects and birds, introduces a crucial element of fantasy. Jackson could hardly have crafted a more appropriate opening.
Still, a great initial sentence needn't cram a novel's subject and tone into the space preceding the first period. It's enough just to give the sentence an odd twist that sets it apart from the drab journalism most of us spend too much time reading.
"Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still, / And she danced twice a day in vaudeville." So begins The Wild Party, a novel in verse by Joseph Moncure March. Not only does this sentence set up the strong beat that will carry through the flapper-era tale, but it tosses off the curious phrase "and her age stood still." Queenie is eternally youthful, certainly, but the phrase hints that, despite her looks, she's no spring chicken. It's a joke, too -- "her age" never stood still: The Jazz Age was the most jittery period of American history up to then.
A single well-turned sentence can tell us a lot about the self-knowledge of a character, especially if that character is the narrator. James Agee crafted a lovely and revealing line that eventually would open his unfinished novel A Death in the Family: "We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennesse, in the time that I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child."
Even more self-aware, and far more pugilistic, are the words that greet us in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."
A single sentence can also quickly tell us what sort of society we've dropped into. Here's the beginning of Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away: "Frances Marion Tarwater's uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up." You can tell right off what segment of society, no matter how ill- equipped, holds the power, and what segment gets stuck with the dirty work, and how all the pretty pieties of religion won't save these people from the ugly habits of their fellow animals.
That wonderfully distasteful image of the corpse being dragged from the breakfast table is a fine bonus, too. Sometimes an ordinary narrative sentence can be redeemed by some strange detail being plopped into it, like the silly prize in a box of Cracker-Jack.
Lightning Song is not Lewis Nordan's best novel—that distinction falls jointly to Wolf Whistle and The Sharpshooter Blues—but it does boast Nordan's most cunning opening: "One day in the summer when he turned twelve years old and when a fragrance of sweet alfalfa hay and llama musk was drifting through the windows and into the house on a breeze from the pastures and cool shade of the little barn where pigeons cooed in the rafters, Leroy Dearman realized that the day had finally come."
"Llama musk"? That's the detail that warns us we've entered a slightly twisted world.
There's nothing slight about the twist in Harry Crews' universe, as you can tell straight off in Feast of Snakes: "She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike." That's the perfect first sentence: It forces you to read, even against your will, the second sentence.
As you might guess, I'm most attracted to opening lines that carry a whiff of the grotesque. Three of my favorites:
"I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine's father over the top of the Standard Oil sign." — The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver.
"In the seventh year of the People's Republic of China (1956), in a remote village in Yunnan Province, Kuo Hsiao-mei gave birth to a son with extraordinarily well developed earlobes." — The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman.
"Three melons and a dwarf sat in the front seat of Marilee's '72 Dodge, but the cop was not amused." — Rocket City by Cathryn Alpert.
The perfect opening line needn't be a joke or have anything unusual about it at all. There's nothing more direct than the beginning of Paradise by Toni Morrison: "They shot the white girl first."
Six words, and we're already full of urgent questions. Who are "they"? Who did they shoot after the white girl? Or is it that they first shot her, then did something unspeakable to the corpse? The last word is "first," which manipulates us into demanding "What happened next?" One short, brutal sentence forces us into the novel's action.
Rarely, the first sentence can be a page-turner in a more literal sense. From drop-cap to first period, the opening sentence of Donald Antrim's The Hundred Brothers occupies two and a half pages. It names each of the hundred brothers, except the narrator, with methods that initially smack of dry Biblical genealogy, then become more anecdotal. Serpentine clauses alternate with more concise utterances, and the whole baroque structure culminates in a funny jolt of colloquialism:
"My brothers Rob, Bob, Tom, Paul, Ralph, Phil, Noah, William, Nick, Dennis, Christopher, Frank, Simon, Saul, Jim, Henry, Seamus, Richard, Jeremy, Walter, Jonathan, James, Arthur, Rex, Bertram, Vaughan, Daniel, Russel, and Angus; and the triplets Herbert, Patrick, and Jeffrey; identical twins Michael and Abraham, Lawrence and Peter, Winston and Charles, Scott and Samuel; and Eric, Donovan, Roger, Lester, Larry, Clinton, Drake, Gregory, Leon, Kevin, and Jack -- all born on the same day, the twenty-third of May, though at different hours in separate years; and the caustic graphomaniac, Sergio, whose scathing opinions appear with regularity in the front-of-book pages of the more conservative monthlies, not to mention on the liquid crystal screens that glow at night atop the radiant work stations of countless bleary-eyed computer bulletin-board subscribers (among whom our brother is known, affectionately, electronically, as Surge); and Albert, who is blind; and Siegfried, the sculptor in burning steel; and clinically depressed Anton, schizophrenic Irv, recovering addict Clayton; and Maxwell, the tropical botanist, who, since returning from the rain forest, has seemed a little screwed up somehow; and Jason, Joshua, and Jeremiah, each vaguely gloomy in his own 'lost boy' way; and Eli, who spends solitary wakeful evenings in the tower, filling notebooks with drawings -- the artist's multiple renderings for a larger work? -- portraying the faces of his brothers, including Chuck, the prosecutor; Porter, the diarist; Andrew, the civil rights activist; Pierce, the designer of radically unbuildable buildings; Barry, the good doctor of medicine; Fielding, the documentary-film maker; Spencer, the spook with known ties to the State Department; Foster, the 'new millennium' psychotherapist; Aaron, the horologist; Raymond, who flies his own plane; and George, the urban planner who, if you read the papers, you'll recall, distinguished himself, not so long ago, with that innovative program for revitalizeing the decaying downtown area (as 'an animate interactive diorama illustrating contemporary cultural and economic folkways'), only to shock and amaze everyone, absolutely everyone, by vanishing with a girl named Jane and an overnight bag packed with municipal funds in unmarked hundreds; and all the young fathers: Seth, Rod, Vidal, Bennet, Dutch, Brice, Allan, Clay, Vincent, Gustavus, and Joe; and Hiram, the eldest; Zachary, the Giant; Jacob , the polymath; Virgil, the compulsive whisperer; Milton, the channeler of spirits who speak across time; and the really bad womanizers: Stephen, Denzil, Forrest, Topper, Temple, Lewis, Mongo, Spooner, and Fish; and, of course, our celebrated 'perfect' brother, Benedict, recipient of a medal of honor from the Academy of Sciences for work over twenty years in chemical transmission of 'sexual language' in eleven types of social insects -- all of us (except George, about whom there have been many rumors, rumors upon rumors: he's fled the vicinity, he's right here under our noses, he's using an alias or maybe several, he has a new face, that sort of thing) -- all ninety-eight, not counting George, brothers and I recently came together in the red library and resolved that the time had arrived, finally, to stop being blue, put the past behind us, share a light supper, and locate, if we could bear to, the missing urn full of the old fucker's ashes."
This circus-act writing risks alienating impatient readers, but cons the rest of us into following along. Whether the style is extravagant like Antrim's or stark like Morrison's, that's what a great opening line is supposed to do. As Tolstoy never quite observed, each bad first sentence is bad in its own way, but all great first sentences resemble each other: They demand not to be the last sentence we read in the book.