Wednesday, May 15, 2013

In the beginning

One reason I appreciate blogging is that it mostly relieves you of the stress of writing an opening. While each post is an individual piece of writing, it also has a place in an ongoing conversation; a blogger is allowed to presume that he and his readers are already friends, having been chatting about books for years now, with today's post just another byway in an endlessly digressive, destinationless journey. The problem of openings is thus solved.

Novelists, on the other hand--well, I feel comfortable assuming that it's hard for them not to obsess about that first paragraph. It's the handshake and greeting of someone new at a party--but unlike a meeting in real life, if your new acquaintance doesn't instantly find you engaging, he can just turn his back on you without apology or risk of censure, and you may never get a chance to convince him he got the wrong impression.

In just the past few days, I've read three great openings. Each one is different in tone and substance from the others, but they all succeeded: they made me want to keep going.

The first is from Dan Kennedy's caustic, uncomfortable--but very good--dark comedy American Spirit:
Ten years ago when someone asked Matthew the question, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" he remained silent and tried to look like he had an answer and was only considering how to phrase it. Inside the head, however, the only answer he could hear was, Those days will eat me alive, and Matthew knew that probably wasn't what you were supposed to say. It's ten years later and if he can swing this storm of time that's standing still in front of him, fortune will smile like it never has. But it is hard to find a hint of promise in a calendar found suddenly blank; Monday through Friday wiped clean against one's own wishes or plans, a wide-open grid of Valium-and-Heineken-kissed dead end days with a horizon way past the weeks on the page. Maybe thirty-five now, maybe forty, close enough anyway--in America these days, one's forties seem to start at twenty-five.
What a combination of ominous content and tightly rhythmic prose! The implied whisper I always hear in italic speech--Those days will eat me alive--makes that unvoiced thought shiver with actual fear. And there's no way I wouldn't want to keep reading a writer who can manage the knocking of consonants (and consonance) in "It's ten years later and if he can swing this storm of time that's standing still in front of him, fortune will smile like it never has," with its hint of a corporate lingo persisting with bloody-nosed bravado amid failure. Kennedy's book is kin to other recent novels of male failure and degeneration--there are echoes here of Sam Lipsyte and Benjamin Anastas--but Kennedy's attention to his prose, and the compelling way he conveys his protagonist's internal narration, with its mix of startling truth and mediated (and medicated) self-deception, makes it stand out.

The second comes from one of my old standbys, Rex Stout. The problem of opening for a genre novelist, especially one writing about a series character, is on the one hand less acute (because his readers already know his work) but on the other more difficult (because he's written about these characters and similar situations over and over and over again already). In Death of a Doxy (1966), Stout solves the problem by simply throwing readers right in:
I stood and sent my eyes around. It's just routine, when leaving a place where you aren't supposed to be, to consider if and where you have touched things, but that time it went beyond mere routine. I made certain. There were plenty of things in the room--fancy chairs, a marble fireplace without a fire, a de luxe television console, a coffee table in front of a big couch with a collection of magazines, and so forth. Deciding I had touched nothing, I turned and stepped back into the bedroom. Nearly everything there was too soft to take a fingerprint--the wall-to-wall carpet, the pink coverlet on the king-size bed, the upholstered chairs, the pink satin fronts on the three pieces of furniture. I crossed for another look at the body of a woman on the floor a couple of feet from the bed, on its back, with the legs spread out and one arm bent. I hadn't had to touch it to check that it was just a body or to see the big dent in the skull, but was there one chance in a million that I had put fingers on the heavy marble ashtray lying there? The butts and ashes that had been in it were scattered around and it was a good bet that it had made the dent in the skull. I shook my head; I couldn't possibly have been such an ape.
Longtime readers of Nero Wolfe stories will, I think, recognize immediately that there's something off here: we've seen Archie Goodwin at plenty of crime scenes, and in plenty of places where he shouldn't be--but this time the worry feels different, more deep-rooted. So we read on, and we soon learn why . .  .

I'll close with the opening of Alice Thomas Ellis's The Clothes in the Wardrobe (1987):
I remembered her all my life. For years the image of her had hung in my mind like a portrait in a high room, seldom observed but unchanging. Sometimes, unawares, I would see her again suddenly revealed in the vaulting halls of my head. She was sitting on a grassy bank, leaning forward a little, a cigarette between her fingers, and she was speaking. I could not remember what she was saying, nor even if I had understood her, but I knew that what she was saying must be, in some sense, significant. She wore a cream-coloured cotton frock with large puffed sleeves, sprigged with tiny brown flowers; he stockings were cream-coloured too and on her feet were white, barred shoes. Her hair grew in dry red curls, dark red like rust or winter bracken. She was not at all beautiful, but even with her likeness before me I had always assumed that she must be, since she carried such conviction in her forgotten words and her enduring appearance. Her name was Lili.
This one, I'll admit, comes close to cliche: even a beginning writing student could see the way to create suspense and intrigue with an opening like this. What saves it for me is the imagery ("the vaulting halls of my head," "dark red like rust or winter bracken"), and the fact that the words--the content of the woman, in some sense--have been lost, and what remains is simply the deep understanding of her significance. Ellis's novel is now, thankfully, back in print, available as part of The Summer House Trilogy from Paul Dry Books. I've raved about her quite a bit before, and my enthusiasm is undimmed.

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