Tuesday, April 29, 2003

First Lines



The first sentence has to grab the readerís attention. This is axiomatic of all writing, weather itís a novel or an essay. Rule of thumb: the first line should lay down the basic idea of your story, your thesis; or at the very least, allude to the problem or introduce the main character, narrator. This isnít always the case but applies roughly 99% of the time. Some first lines are more memorable then others, taking on a stature as mythic as the books they begin:

ìMother died today.î

From Camusí The Stranger. Itís a methodical statement, emotionally distant, like the narrator. For those Camus aficionados out there, notice Iíve stuck with the old British translation rather then the modern ìMammon,î instead of mother. While some may argue itís more linguistically accurate, no one knows what a mammon is this side of the pond. Introducing unusual foreign words in the first line of your book is a sure fire way to alienate the readerÖ

ìIt was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton

ÖUnless youíre Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. Then this odd phrase, ìimmanentized the Eschatonî (which means to make eminent the end of the world) is actually the point of the novel, Illuminatus!. And yes, I said book, not trilogy. It makes no sense to read this opus as anything other then one monstro-novel and since itís only published in the compendium edition now anyway, calling it a trilogy strikes me as silly.

ìIt was a pleasure to burn.î

This simple declaration begins what is probably the single most important book in the English language, Ray Bradburyís Fahrenheit 451. At least to me, since it was the book that made me want to become a writer. Why is it a pleasure to burn? And for whom? Makes me want to run of and read it for the hundred and eleventh time.

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

This classic gem was penned by Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton . The infamy of the first line has outlived the book it started by most of a century and with good reason: Bulwer-Lytton was a hack and this line, as famous as it is, is nothing short of the granddaddy of all clichÈs. This is what you should not do to a first line. Unless of course you happen to be Madelyn Língle or Ray Bradbury who make it work in quite unexpected ways.

ìThe magicianís underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.î

Tom Robbins , the disputed master of the first line, has given us some whoppers. Especially when you consider that, according to Robins own handcrafted mythos, he wrote this sentence the way he writes all of his sentences: as if it were its own entity, in a zen-like detachment form the one that comes after it. If we are to believe Mr. Robbins, he had no plot, no characters and did not himself even know who the magician was or what his knickers were doing in Miami when he penned that line. Personally, I think this is a bit of leg pulling on the part of the author. Having just recently written a first line of my own (and a last line, with about ten thousand others in between) I know how difficult it is to go anywhere without at least some idea of where youíre heading. Or maybe heís simply a genius. The truth, as is usually the case, lies most likely somewhere in the excluded middle.

ìOne summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, oedipal, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more then honorary.î

Thomas Pynchon makes many fine points in the Crying of Lot 49, most notably that an author does not always have to keep the first line short and sweet. In a book that scarcely runs more then 180 pages he manages to toss off a few ideas concerning perpetual motion, entropy, underground postal services and a possible conspiracy that grips the world, or maybe not. Itís dense little sentences like this one that make it possible to say everything in such a little space. But if you look closely, itís all there. Not one but two characters, local color, setting, background and the impetus that starts the whole ball rolling.

P.S. Villa Incognito is out today! Hopefully Iíll have a copy before long and will post a review.

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