Opening Lines: rough notes and thoughts toward an essay

At the launch of Freehand Books here in Montreal on Friday night I picked up Marina Endicott’s novel, Good To A Fault, and as she took to the podium, read the first few lines. Actually, it was the first line. That was enough to compel me to buy the novel, which I did, right then. Sadly, this occurs far less frequently than I would like. In fact so many first sentences compel me not to read the book that when one compels me I don’t stop to think about it, as in the case of Marina Endicott. Rather, I immediately, and very gratefully, buy the book.

But what is it that compels? There seems to be no real formula–not a certain kind of sentence that leads to a certain kind of text even. What is it about the texture of language that can occur in a single sentence that compels a person forward or not?? The consciousness of the writer? The subject? The wording? What is it about a first line in particular? This is not a poem, this is a novel, there will be hundreds, thousands of words to follow, and yet–so often the energy is caught and crystalized in that first line.

Oddly enough, in yesterday’s Globe & Mail, TF Rigelhof started a review of Endicott’s novel with the opening paragraph in question:

‘Thinking about herself and the state of her soul, Clara Purdy drove to the bank one hot Friday in July. The other car came from nowhere, speeding through on the yellow, going so fast it was almost safely past when Clara’s car caught it. She was pushing on the brake, a ballet move, graceful – pulling back on the wheel with both arms as she rose, her foot standing on the brake – and then a terrible crash, a painful extended rending sound, when the metals met.”

In a time of conceptual novels and genre bending poetically charged, intellectually rigorous, prose–the kind the Hound prefers to chew on–what is the appeal of such a straightforward opening line? “Thinking about herself…” This is not a grand line, and given my own troubling of the self in contemporary literature, it’s surprising that it caught me. “Thinking about herself.” There we are, in a singular mind. And next up? Soul. Is that fresh? There is certainly confidence in the voice. And clarity. But for whatever it’s worth, whatever I end up thinking about Endicott’s novel, it will be scored by that initial introduction and my sense of feeling for one reason or another, inexplicably drawn in. I will have to come to terms with my own relationship to that first line–no need for the second, though the second is great, and leads to the third which increases the stakes considerably. A directness, a sense of urgency. And so on.

The game Ex-Libris (once available at the British Library though apparently not anymore) is based on the question of what makes a good opening and closing line. Players are given the synopsis of a novel and at the toss of a coin must write the first or last line of said book. This is mixed in with the real version and after hearing them all read out loud players must guess which one is the real line. Points are made for guessing the real and writing a convincing enough line that others choose your line.

And what lines usually win? The short and punchy? The long and descriptive parallel structure? The out of left field? The two word surprise? Just to complicate my own position (shaky as it is in any case), it is far too often the less tantalizing lines that are the real first lines. Apparently the power of a good opening line isn’t its flash. Though something startling is good. Perhaps the Endicott line struck a cord with me–after all I am enamoured of vehicles. And I admit that the third (of many) drafts of my own first novel (which exists in an entirely different form now), also opened with a crash scene. Mine involved a mother and four children in a remote mountain pass having narrowly missed flying off into a canyon, sliding instead into a hard, snow packed cliff in the Monashees (a range in central BC). It gets at the conflict alright. It gets the story moving, it shows that there will be risks, that there be skid marks, and near misses–in short there will be repercussions.

But I changed that opening, as well as the entire structure of the novel because it seemed too familiar, too novelistic…predictable. Too fiction-world real. And yet we have this very realistic scene given in plain language in Endicott’s hands and voila, compelling. Now, I haven’t read Endicott’s novel, but after hearing her read for five minutes I bought a second copy to give away. There was something vibrant, and clear in the prose, something that promised intellectual and emotional engagement, that was quick moving, but thoughtful, not overly descriptive, but attentive in the right quantity. A novel in the complete opposite tradition of the last novel that made me buy it and think about it and read it compulsively which was Vanessa Place’s Dies: A Sentence, a 50,000 word sentence that has much action, much description, much movement, and none of it in the traditional sense. I can’t give you Place’s opening line because the line doesn’t end until the novel ends…but here a slice of the actual opening:

The maw that rends without tearing, the maggoty claw that serves you, what, my baby buttercup, prunes stewed softly in their own juices or a good slap in the face, there’s no accounting for history in any event, even such a one as this one, O, we’re knee-deep in this one, you and me, we’re practically puppets, making all sorts of fingers dance above us, what do you say, shall we give it another whirl…

Tension, risk–no sense of narrative. None is wanted in Place’s hands. (You can read about the writing of Dies in two interviews linked to the right of this post). And yet that opening compels! Why?

There are of course the celebrated openings, Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” from Moby Dick often cited as “best ever.” Austen’s, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Tolstoy’s, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Or Toni Morrison’s incredible: “124 was spiteful.”

Other favorites: Jeanette Winterson’s “It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock,” from The Passion. Paul Auster’s “It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not,” from City of Glass. Of course Beckett: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” (This from Murphy, though I could go on just thinking and praising the opening lines of all Beckett’s work.) Joyce of course, “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed,” and I am a sucker for the opening of both The Wind in the Willows and The Hobbit

The immediacy of the “I” when done right makes it difficult not to turn the page. Here’s the opening of Russel Hoban’s dark dystopian novel Riddley Walker:

“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”

The elegantly understated “For a long time, I went to bed early,” from Lydia Davis’ translation of Proust, and Roth’s “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise,” from Portnoy’s Complaint. Did the line “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” prepare us for the dark meditation on power in Coetzee’s Disgrace? Atwood certainly sets up The Handmaid’s Tale up well in the short and apt “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”

But is the role of the first line different in a conceptual novel? Must it compel in a different way? Or is the desire to be compelled the urge that must be quelled? Gail Scott’s Heroine begins simply, “Sir.” Mary Burger’s Sonny is one of the most beautiful and powerful innovative novels I’ve encountered in the past decade. I “read it” several times (flipping here, there, admiring) before making myself read it straight through as I would a traditional novel (the effect of which was devastating and I’ll report on that in another post). That novel, told in shards (sharper than fragments) begins simply, “This boy raised rabbits and kept them in cardboard pens in the yard.”

On the other hand, Carol Maso’s much talked about Ava, which I’ve never been able to read straight through, begins “Each holiday celebrated with real extravagance,” a line less compelling. It is a novel of great beauty, but not having ever been able to read it through I can’t actually describe its successes as a formal experiment. There are first lines that compel, but novels that don’t quite compel as compellingly as the first line. Say, Stein’s The Making of Americans, for example: “Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard.” That line has all the hallmarks of a great novel to come and yet, well, I admit to not making it through Stein’s Making either… Though it makes me no less a fan for it.

I can’t think of first lines without the now overly familiar, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” and “The sun had not yet risen,” from The Waves, and the startling, “He–for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it–was in the act of slicing a the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters,” from Orlando. Are these any more successful than the opening of Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out: “As the streets that lead from the Strand to the Embankment are very narrow, it is better not to walk down them arm-in-arm.” I want to say yes. Partly because although there is movement in the latter, a sense of being funneled undeniably toward one’s future (as the novel further explores), there is not the sense of risk, there is not the tension either in the language or the meaning that compels the way one wants, and increasingly needs, to be compelled to read beyond.

Those rabbits in cages that Burger evokes make me shudder. I worry. Feel pent up, vulnerable. Wonder what they are doing there. How they will figure. Rabbits in a cage isn’t an astounding opening, but it works very well for Burger’s novel. And as they come back again and again, the reader experiences that kind of vulnerability. Powerful.

The sentence is a unit of writing. It is composed of words, and yet, as Silliman points out, “the utterance exists as a unit of speech prior to the acquisition of writing…” Am I searching for the sentences that seem plugged in to that? Or that offer a kind of connective circuitry that effectively takes me elsewhere? Thinking of the way Lydia Davis begins a piece (I’ll come back to her next time), or, as Silliman points out rightly, the precise wand-waving of Russell Edson:

A man opens a sardine can and finds a row of tiny cots full of tiny dead people; it is a dormitory flooded with oil.

And what of the short story?? Much to say about that, and the failure, it would seem to sufficiently innovate in that form (or for what is innovative in it to be relegated to the swelling ranks of the prose poem for lack of distinction). And of course now I have to think about first lines of poems. What does one need there? All of the above, only more condensed, more syntactical. Certainly one wants a mind…and if there is none?


Having moved on.

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