Thursday, November 18, 2010

Great Beginnings: The Doorknobs of Novels

All this week, I've been talking about first lines of short stories--those catchy hooks which snag your eyeballs and pull you deeper into the pages.  In their finest moments, short stories excel at this sort of thing--mainly out of necessity: they're compact and must communicate a lot of information, quickly and artfully.

Novels are different.  They can stretch out, get a little lazy, meander down side streets and still be forgiven.  Novelists can take their time, knowing they have plenty of pages with which to try readers' patience.

The best novels don't do that.  Every word serves a purpose, every sentence propels the reader to the next, and the next, and the next.  And it all begins with the first words on the first page.  Here, opening sentences set the stage as they bring us inside.  If novels are split-level, five-bedroom homes in which we lose ourselves down hallways and up staircases, then those first sentences are the doorknobs.  Turn, push, enter.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite openings to novels.  I'm sure I've missed a few--after all, it's no small feat to go through my library of nearly 4,000 novels--but these are the ones which stand out as the hardest-working sentences in literature.  I've skipped over some of the obvious ("Call me Ishmael" and "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." for example), and have confined myself only to books I've read (thus, no "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.").  Feel free to share some of your favorites in the comments section.

       If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book.  In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.  This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.  Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful, and had pleasant facial features, but they were extremely unlucky, and most everyting that happened to them was rife with misfortue, misery, and despair.  I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.
       Lemony Snicket, The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book the First)

       My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie.  I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.
       Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

       In her secondhand shop, Mabel stretched out on the fainting sofa, feeling tipsy from the summer's heat, not knowing, for a moment, if it was June, July, or August.  She shook up a leaking snow globe, the white flakes settling in the laps of lovers on a gondola.  Mabel had read in a book on antiques that the snow in snow globes was once made of sawed-up bone.  Though Mabel was very young, she often pictured her demise, often hovered above her own Valentino-like funeral with women collapsing and broad-chested men singing impromptu bass tremolo.  She'd like to donate her skeleton to a snow globe maker, liked thinking of her remins forever drifting among the plastic landscapes of a souvenir.
       Timothy Schaffert, The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters

       Ruth remembered drowning.
       "That's impossible," Aunt Amanda said.  "It must have been a dream."
       But Ruth maintained that she had drowned, insisted on it for years, even after she should have known better.
       Christina Schwarz, Drowning Ruth

       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.
       J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

       RC Nash's sense of destiny was reignited by a flight attendant feeling bumps on his forehead.
       Tim Sandlin, Honey Don't

       The first time my husband hit me I was nineteen years old.  One sentence and I'm lost.
       Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue

       When Pemberton returned to the North Carolina mountains after three months in Boston settling his father's estate, among those waiting on the train platform was a young woman pregnant with Pemberton's child.  She was accompanied by her father, who carried beneath his shabby frock coat a bowie knife sharpened with great attentiveness earlier that morning so it would plunge as deep as possible into Pemberton's heart.
       Ron Rash, Serena

       When I was a little girl of six or seven I was always scared when we passed the lions on our way out of town.
       Per Petterson, To Siberia

       One night when she was four and sleeping in the bottom bunk of her bunk bed, Ruth Cole woke to the sound of lovemaking--it was coming from her parents' bedroom.  It was a totally unfamiliar sound to her.  Ruth had recently been ill with a stomach flu; when she first heard her mother making love, Ruth thought that her mother was throwing up.
       John Irving, A Widow For One Year

       It was love at first sight.
       The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
       Joseph Heller, Catch-22

       In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.  This was in Great Falls, Montana, at the time of the Gypsy Basin oil boom, and my father had brought us there in the spring of that year from Lewiston, Idaho, in the belief that people--small people like him--were making money in Montana or soon would be, and he wanted a piece of that good luck before all of it collapsed and was gone in the wind.
       Richard Ford, Wildlife

       My father had a face that could stop a clock.
       Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair

       Having harbored two sons in the waters of her womb, my mother considers herself something of an authority on human foetuses.
       David James Duncan, The River Why

       When Louise White Elk was nine, Baptiste Yellow Knife blew a fine powder in her face and told her she would disappear.
       Debra Magpie Earling, Perma Red

       He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.
       Don DeLillo, Underworld

       The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted.  Trisha McFarland discovered this when she was nine years old.
       Stephen King, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

       To know me you have to fly with me.  Sit down.  I'm the aisle, you're the window--trapped.  You crack your paperback, last spring's big legal thriller, convinced that what you want is solitude, though I know otherwise:  you need to talk.
       Walter Kirn, Up in the Air

       Howdy, I'm the Holy Ghost.  Talk about your omniscient narrators.
       Jack Butler, Living in Little Rock With Miss Little Rock

       If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
       Saul Bellow, Herzog

       Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of a road in northern Wisconsin.
       Paul Auster, Leviathan

       All this happened, more or less.  The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.  One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn't his.  Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war.  And so on.  I've changed all the names.
       Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five

       I got off at three-thirty, but it took me almost an hour to walk home.  The factory is a mile off Pacific Boulevard, and we live a mile up the hill from Pacific.  Or up the mountain, I should say.  How they ever managed to pour concrete on those hill streets is beyond me.  You can tie your shoelaces going up them without stooping.
       Jim Thompson, Now and On Earth

       The sky is flesh.
       Jane Mendelsohn, I Was Amelia Earheart

       Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
       Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

       I do not love mankind.
       People think they're interesting.  That's their first mistake.
       Elizabeth McCracken, The Giant's House

       Nobody could sleep.  When morning came, assualt craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei.  All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
       Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

       In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.
       Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

       The phone call came late one August afternoon as my older sister Gracie and I sat out on the back porch shucking the sweet corn into the big tin buckets.  The buckets were still peppered with little teeth-marks from this past spring, when Verywell, our ranch hound, became depressed and turned to eating metal.
       Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

       One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away.
       Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

       That was the summer we lost the bald Jeeter who was not even mostly Jeeter anymore but was probably mostly Throckmorton or anyway was probably considered mostly Throckmorton which was an appreciable step up from being considered mostly Jeeter since Jeeters hadn't ever been anything much while Throckmortons had in fact been something once previously before the money got gone and the prestige fell away leaving merely the bluster and the taint and the general Throckmorton aroma all of which taken together hardly made for a legacy worth getting stirred up over but any one of which taken singly still outstripped the entire bulk of advancements ever attempted and realized by Jeeters who had scratched around in the dirt but were not much accomplished at farming and who had speculated in herds of cattle but were not much accomplished at speculating either and who at last had turned their energies to the construction of a henhouse which commenced ramshackle and got worse but became nonetheless the chief Jeeter advancement along with the hens and the little speckled brown eggs and the localized ammonia cloud which was itself most probably the primary Jeeter success though no particular Jeeter or group of Jeeters together actually contributed to it or could prevent it either so when the bald Jeeter, with the fat Jeeter as her maid of honor, exchanged vows with Braxton Porter Throckmorton III in the sanctuary of the Methodist church on Saturday June the twelfth, 1942, and afterwards set up house in Neely proper she got away from the hens and the henhouse and out from under the ammonia cloud which was most likely beginning to expand in June of 1942 since it set in to expanding most every June and swelled straight through August and on into September when it was bearing down on the town limits and posing some threat to the icehouse which was regular and ordinary for the season, particularly in August and particularly in September, so we were having what had come to be our usual summer straight up to the moment Mr. Derwood Bridger laid his ladder against the Throckmorton clapboard and climbed to the upper story where he pressed his nose to the bedroom windowscreen and shaded his eyes and called and hollered and shrieked at the bald Jeeter until he was satisfied that she was gone from us for good.*
       T. R. Pearson, Off for the Sweet Hereafter

       Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story:  On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.  There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei; it was a weekday afternoon, and none of our neighbors were at home, sitting in their kitchens with their windows open, to hear whether, in that brief midair moment, my wife cried out or gasped or made no sound at all.  None of them were working in their yards, enjoying the last of the warm weather, to see whether her body crumpled before she hit the ground, or whether she tried to right herself in the air, or whether she simply spread her arms open to the sky.
       Carolyn Parkhurst, The Dogs of Babel

       This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
       Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

       I, Sam Pulsifer, am the man who accidentally burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, and who in the process killed two people, for which I spent ten years in prison and, as letters from scholars of American literature tell me, for which I will continue to pay a high price long into the not-so-sweet hereafter.  This story is locally well known, and so I won't go into it here.  It's probably enough to say that in the Massachusetts Mt. Rushmore of big, gruesome tragedy, there are the Kennedys, and Lizzie Borden and her ax, and the burning witches at Salem, and then there's me.
       Brock Clarke, An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England

       London.  Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall.  Implacable November weather.  As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.  Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.  Dogs, undistinguishable in mire.  Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.  Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
        Charles Dickens, Bleak House

       That night when he came to claim her, he stood on the short lawn before her house, his knees bent, his fists driven into his thighs, and bellowed her name with such passion that even the friends who surrounded him, who had come to support him, to drag her from the house, to murder her family if they had to, let the chains they carried go limp in their hands.
       Alice McDermott, That Night

       Francis 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.**
       Flannery O'Connor, The Violent Bear It Away

*Showy?  Yes.  Faulknerian?  Mm-hm.  Calculated to send you directly to an optometrist?  Of course.  It's all of those things, but it's also the perfect introduction to Pearson's showy, Faulknerian, breathless, very Southern style which infuses his books with a particular charm and humor.  I happen to love it, you may not.

**Quite possibly my most-favorite first line of all.  When I first read it 25 years ago, this sentence, more than anything else, blew breath on a spark that leapt to a flame that kindled a fire of longing in me to write and in doing so to do it better and thus to start taking it seriously.


  1. Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. I don't know.

    The Stranger - Camus

    This remains my all time favorite. Well, maybe after 'It was a dark and stormy night...'


  2. ...

    . . .and the government of the United States of America is herewith suspended, except in the District of Columbia, as of the emergency. Federal officers, including those of the Armed Services, will put themselves under the orders of the governors of the various states or of any other functioning local authority. By Order of the Acting President. God save the people of the United States. . . .

    Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

    My all-time favorite, recurring read. Lavish praise of it by sleeper can be found elsewhere on the Intertubes


  3. "There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle," said Rose. And stood breathing.

    from Patrick White: "Voss"

    Consider the enormous amount of information in those first words - about the household, about miss and her uncle, about Rose - even about the newcomer - a man, not a gentleman...

  4. I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.
    The Kite Runner, Khaled Housseini

  5. "A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard."

    from P.K. Dick's Do Androids Dream?