Monday, March 17, 2008

Great Second (and third and fourth) Lines, Part II

As I've noted before, sometimes the best opening isn't a matter of the best first line. Let me give you an example of a subtle little one-two punch from Eliza Graham's Playing with the Moon. Here's the opening sentence:

Our second wedding anniversary.

Big yawn, right? Are you ever going to find that in a book of best first lines? But look at the first two lines:

Our second wedding anniversary. I'm about to tell Tom our marriage is over when he spots something in the sand.

A whole different world, right? And Eliza is accomplished enough that she then drags us away from the marriage problem in the beginning of the second sentence into a wonderful, close-POV examination of what Tom has found--filtered through the skeptical, alienated voice of his wife. By the middle of the page we have two problems looming: the relationship itself, which is left hanging but still informs everything that is discovered, and the item that Tom proceeds to dig up. That's a good opening.

Okay, let's take a look at a classic:

Mother died today.

Great line? Some might answer yes, but I think it has less intrinsic structural interest than the Bonneville Salt Flats. Yet it's the iconic opening of Camus' The Stranger, and I find it unutterably boring without the second line:

Mother died today. Or maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure.

Okay--that's getting a little spooky, but it only gives the full flavor of what's to come when you look at the opening paragraph (the Gilbert translation):

Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can't be sure. The telegram from the Home says: `Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy.' Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

So powerful is the compulsion to consolidate into single quotable lines that you can often find this mistranslated as: "Mother died today, or maybe yesterday, I can't be sure." Well, M. Camus didn't write it that way--we can quibble about how to translate it, but he wrote Aujourd 'hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-ĂȘtre hier, je ne sais pas... so at the minimum we can be sure that he intended for there to be two sentences, and I figure Big Al knew what he was doing. He didn't have a great first line. He did have a great opening.

Here's one of my favorite openings, from Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's hilarious Good Omens. It starts with a contender (but see below) for the least-quotable first line in the annals of literature:

It was a nice day.

You won't find that in Bartlett's, though it's pretty funny. But let's read on:

It was a nice day.

All the days had been nice. There had been rather more than seven of them so far, and rain hadn't been invented yet. But clouds massing east of Eden suggested that the first thunderstorm was on its way, and it was going to be a big one.

That's clever.

Here's another opening line:

When Alba walked past the window of Le Drugstore Saint-Germain in Paris, three men were eating ice cream inside.

That's from Delacorta's novel Diva (yes, the one they made the movie of, and yes, I agree, it's really a novella. If you didn't insist on interrupting, perhaps we could get finished and all go home.) My point is, that's not a first line you'll find engraved in marble. In fact, it sounds like the set-up for a joke, and, in a mild way, Delacorta uses it as one:

When Alba walked past the window of Le Drugstore Saint-Germain in Paris, three men were eating ice cream inside. Catching sight of her, the first one nearly swallowed his spoon, the second one gulped convulsively, and the third one tossed thirty francs on the table and leaped up from his seat to run after her.

Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle opens with the line:

Call me Jonah.

Ha ha. But he goes on:

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

And he keeps running with it:

Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.

Jonah--John--if my parents had named me Sam, I would have been a Jonah still--not because I am unlucky for others, but because somebody or something has compelled me to be certain places at certain times, without fail.

And, to quote Vonnegut one more time, I seriously doubt he was going for immortality in the first line of his magnificent, underrated novel Mother Night:

My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

That has to be the most boring opening line ever, topping even It was a nice day, which at least has an ironic, tongue-in-cheek feel to it. My name is whatever sounds like the worst opening line you would get at the first meeting of a creative-writing workshop at the Bakersfield Night School for Youth at Risk. But, as Vonnegut would say...Listen*:

My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr.

I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.

The year in which I write this book is 1961.

I address this book of mine to Mr. Tuvia Friedmann, Director of the Haifa Insitute for the Documentation of War Criminals, and to whomever else this may concern.

There's not a quotable line in those four paragraphs, but I still think it's an utterly engrossing opening.

And what was my point? Hear me, oh Muse: I love marvelous, quotable opening lines. But I also think the cult of great first lines is deluding itself. Some first lines only find their culmination in the second line, and some openings start small and ratchet up the interest with every additional sentence. A great first line is a wonderful thing, but an opening that drags the reader into the book is is more valuable.

And, who knows? If you write a wonderful opening, people may decide that your first line was inspired. Even if it's just Call me Ishmael.


*Want to mess with Vonnegut lovers? Ask them for the first line of Slaughter-House Five. Chances are good they'll say:

Billy Pigrim has come unstuck in time.

Nope. That's the first line of Chapter Two, a good 5,000 words into the book. I reread SH5 a while back and was startled to find it doesn't open with that famous line. So it goes.


Eliza Graham said...

OK--I'm going to stop writing NOW because I think this post represents the first and last time my name will ever be found on any page alongside Camus's...!

Glad you liked the opening lines, David.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Eliza--

I couldn't have found a better pair of opening lines to illustrate my point than those from Playing With the Moon.

Let's just hope that your book doesn't result in thousands of British college students sipping espresso, smoking unfiltered Gauloises, and staring into the Void. Especially the Gauloises part. They smell terrible.

Jamie Ford said...

That's a great breakdown.

I spent a considerable amount of time lamenting the first few lines of HOTEL, then my editor had me switch the order of the first and second chapters. So now my "big open" is buried in the book. *sigh*

Another book I read recently opened with, Ash was falling from the sky. Sublime, but it hooked me.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Jamie--

Well, now that you've alerted me, once it's published I'll keep my eyes open for your buried opening.

Who knows? Maybe, as with Slaughter-House Five, people will misremember where the book actually begins...!

La Titanomaquia said...

Hi, my english is poor but i think that your novel is great.I´m from Argentina and i also Write. I Salute you.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Titano--

Thank you so much! And good luck with your career as an escritor incipiente. (Anybody who likes Dead Can Dance and Crim has got good taste.)