Wednesday, July 27, 2011

in the beginning...

so for my recent birthday, my partner got me a copy of a book that should have been on my favorites list, only it wasn't because i didn't have a copy of it when i wrote that post, and my memory is that bad - if it's not in front of me as i'm staring at my bookshelves, i'm not going to think to include it.

i opened it up - and had forgotten what a kick-ass first line it has:

In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.

the book is the heart is a lonely hunter, by carson mccullers. [which she, of course, wrote when she was 23. twenty-freaking-three! but that's neither here nor there.]

mccullers' opening sentence draws you in - i mean, who doesn't want to know more? who are the mutes? why are they together? what will happen to them? why are they important? it's such a mysterious, engaging set up.

the opening sentence is so important, of course, that there's entire competitions devoted to writing just that - or, at least, to writing the most god-awful and trite version you can (

ok, back to great ones. what about this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

brilliant. we already know that this book - pride and prejudice, by jane austen - is going to be both tongue in cheek and scathingly accurate.

tolstoy sets up the premise of anna karenina - love, families, and all their troubles - so easily in this way:

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

In all fairness, sometimes it really does take two sentences. The first one of catch-22 isn't anything out of the ordinary:

It was love at first sight.

it's the second sentence here that really puts a new spin on it:

The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him. 

what's even better is that nowhere in the next several pages does heller mention anything more about the chaplain.

it's fun to peruse books, reading only the first sentence, and thinking about what it does or doesn't do. a great book can have a mediocre first sentence - it's not a necessary or sufficient condition for a great novel. of human bondage, for example, one of my very favorite books, starts out rather unspectacularly with just:

The day broke grey and dull.

ok, it's telling us something - it's setting a stage - but it's not anything spectacular, in and of itself. that is a book that sneaks up on you more than grabs you right from the get go. because when the opening sentence grabs you, it can linger forever.

i love sometimes a great notion. and it's not a great first sentence, but kesey does tell you something very important about the book in it:

Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range...come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Agua River...

kesey is telling us, right from the start, that place, that the natural environment, is the defining characteristic of the story. place - the rivers, the hysterical crashing of the rushing water - is the main character here, not any one person or any one situation. [also, there's a clue that it might be somewhat rambling and dream-like in presentation.]

steinbeck does something similar with the grapes of wrath:

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.

talk about grabbing you: for a teenager, there's no opening sentence that says "i know what you're going through" like that of the catcher in the rye:

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. 

yep, we know. we know exactly what you mean.

what are some other great opening lines, ones you've never forgotten?


  1. "it began as a mistake" -charles bukowski 'post office'

    this is a great idea. i should start reading opening sentences at the store. i get lost anyway in there.


  2. I was just reminded of one this past Monday:

    "There was a wall." Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed.

  3. very nice. i love the bukowski - so great, coming from him. and again - i must check out that LeGuin!