“To start with, look at all the books.”
This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”
Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?
So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence––after the book design, title, and epigraph––is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.
But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?
As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.
Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
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.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.
It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t––and shouldn’t––always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here––the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”––are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?
Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:
I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.
Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form––gender, power, identity, authenticity––and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”
I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closetlike room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.
A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows––subtly, maybe inexpressibly––that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.
In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.
Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing––suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur––a kind of historical importance––to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect––and the opening sentence reflects that.
Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale––no other word for it––with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress––frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill––they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway––deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.
Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.
Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.
Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.
Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is––you guessed it––swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales––religion and politics.
Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrow her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)
Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.
But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.
And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor––if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions––billions, even––of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition––to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”––has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.
I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.
Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening––hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.
Image via Thunderchild7/Flickr