Friday, March 14, 2008

Great Second Lines, Part I

I once sat in on a seminar by a literary agent. An entertaining process, though I had my doubts about some of the proceedings. For instance, the agent wanted to talk about how important great first lines are, and spent some time marveling over how wonderful Melville's "Call me Ishmael" was. "Immediately you wonder," he said, "why 'Ishmael'?"

Well, I admit that the first line of Moby Dick has become iconic. And I love Moby Dick. But I think "Call me Ishmael" itself is overrated. Contrary to what the literary agent stated, in the context of 19th Century novels, it doesn't really make us wonder, "Why Ishmael?" Despite all the critical analysis of the meaning of every syllable of Moby Dick, and the fact that one can read all manner of things into the choice of that name, in an age where people were routinely called Zebediah or Josiah or Homer, there's nothing especially striking about someone who suggests they ought to be called "Ishmael."

Sorry, it's not a remarkable first line. It's the first line of a remarkable opening passage, at once funny and soul-shaking:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially when my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can...

For me, that is as good as openings can get. But it isn't because of the first line. It's because of the opening as a whole--the flat initial greeting, then the rolling, controlled second sentence. The candid third sentence, and then the long, cadenced, semicolon-laden fourth sentence, which not only prefigures the high style of much of the novel to come, but also maintains the conversational, confessional style of the first sentence. This opening, taken as a whole, shouts the authority of the narrator in a way that is irrefutable.

But I'll be damned if "Call me Ishamel" is genius on its own:

Call me Ishmael. It's a family name. That's what my uncle was named. As a child it was embarassing--there's no obvious nicknames, so blah blah blah.

You could come up with "Call me Ishmael" all week long and it wouldn't be genius were it not for what followed. But for what followed, it wouldn't even be memorable.

I'm not denying that there are such things as brilliant first lines:

Now is the winter of our discontent.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

And so on.

Oh, did you catch me on that last one? The real sentence as Dickens wrote it is a substantial paragraph, not the couplet that is usually quoted:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Which is very nice, but, like the opening to Bleak House, not readily recalled in its entirety.

All of which is to say that, while I love great openings, I think great first lines are a bit overrated.

A good example of my position came up in the aforementioned seminar. The agent had people read the opening line of their manuscript aloud to the room, and then had the room vote on whether they would keep on reading. I quote the following scene from memory, so I'm sure it's fraught with inaccuracy, but I'm sure it's faithful to the sense:

Woman: Can I read two sentences instead?

Agent: No, this is about the opening line.

Woman: (sigh) "She tossed her glossy black hair off her shoulders and squinted at the menu as though nothing satisfied her."

Agent: Well? Who's excited about reading on?

Room: (Mumbles of no, not really...)

Woman: Can I please read the second line too?

Agent: Yeah, sure.

Woman: "She tossed her glossy black hair off her shoulders and squinted at the menu as though nothing satisfied her. It's going to be an utter pleasure to kill this bitch, he thought."

The vote after she read the second line was a bit different.

I have more to say on this topic, but I'll close this post by recalling Peter DeVries' lines from The Vales of Laughter:

Call me, Ishmael. Feel absolutely free to call me any hour of the day or night at the office or at home...

Peter DeVries was wonderful. Especially his observation, "I love being a writer. It's the paperwork I can't stand."

8 comments:

Usman said...

David Hi,
I'm with you on Call me Ishmael. I have never thought of it as a brilliant line.
As a matter of fact, I have something against 'Great First Lines.'
We buy a novel to read a book, not a first great line. I normally scan through parts of a novel, reading paragraphs, before I buy or not.
At other times I just buy.

Alis said...

For me, the first line is not the issue. I tend to judge whether I'm going to carry on reading a book based on the whole of the first page - if I'm already turning over wanting to know what happens next, we're in. Arresting first lines can actually get in the way of that process if they don't lead seamlessly into what comes next.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Usman--

Yeah. If I'm browsing, I usually glance at a passage in the middle, and then read the first page.

It's an odd process, glancing through a book and deciding whether or not you want to read it. And I suspect it's pretty fickle--what attracts me on one day might not on another.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

I'm in complete agreement. In fact, I get mildly irritated if I hit a first line that appears to be striving for epigram status.

What I like best it when I'm in the middle of the page without realizing it.

Jen Ster said...

Hi David,
I really, really like your writers workshop example. I've been to workshops where similar things happened, some goofy, some just sad. All the advice about how to draw in your audience apparently got discarded by the late Robert Jordan, who opened "The Eye of the World" with an utterly incomprehensible sequence followed by 150 pages in which not much happened. Guy sold millions of books. Somebody please explain that to me.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Explain the utterly incomprehensible sequence, or the millions of books sold?

I think one of the things that appealed to a lot of people about Jordan was that he re-explained things, and then re-re-explained them, and then...well, you get the idea. In each book he'd recapitulate "our story so far" at immense length. If he hadn't done that, it would have only been a trilogy.

I'm not a big admirer of Mr Jordan, though I read the first few volumes. (I kept hoping it would coalesce.) But I do have to give him credit for his character as a writer--when he found out he was dying, his main concern was to finish the series, or at least leave behind the material needed for someone else to complete it. That shows some class.

Me, I'd be down at a bar by the beach, not scribbling notes.

Tim Stretton said...

The point about epigram status is bang-on. There are plenty of ways to start a novel, and most of them don't involve gasping at the author's brilliance on line 1.

That said, sometimes the first line sets the tone with an economy which explains why the whole "first line industry" exists:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

Yeah, good point. Orwell manages to chop a lot of wood and haul a lot of water with that line.

There needs to be a special category for opening lines that make one say, "Hunh?" They push you further down to page to sort out what the opening might mean.