“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
In my eighth-grade U.S. History class, each student read a novel written by an African-American writer, about African-Americans. There were a few books to choose from, but the only ones I remember are Native Son by Richard Wright and Roots by Alex Haley. Because the latter was so long, no one chose it. No one but me, that is. I had never heard of it, nor the adapted mini-series, but the book was big and intimidating, and I was nothing if not a nerd and a show-off. In my certainly-revised memory, I pick up a copy from the pile, and the class gasps with admiration and foreboding. I carry it back to my desk, head held high.
A little background. I’m white (shocking, I know), and I went to a mostly white, public elementary school in Laurel Canyon, that rock ‘n roll, bohemian enclave in Los Angeles with its bungalows and crumbling mountain-sides. (In recent years, it’s gotten much fancier.) Back then, I felt left out that my parents weren’t British, or former addicts, or ostrich-owners (don’t ask), or screenwriters. If you think my name is odd–well, you didn’t know Chantilly, or Swan, or America, or Ole, a kid who was only there for a few months before disappearing to who-knows-where. In the sixth-grade, Spike Lee’s X came out, and a couple of students wore those baseball caps with the letter X on the front–I’m not sure they knew what it meant. A few had that shirt that read, “Love knows no color.” This was the same year as the L.A. riots. Our graduation dance theme was “Rebuilding the Peace.” The teachers decorated the tables with tiny wooden hammers.
Around that same time, my father got a subscription to The New Yorker. (For the cartoons. I’m serious.) I remember one cover had something to do with Malcolm X, and there were these small illustrations of white faces on it, with the words “white devil” floating around them. I saw this magazine in the bathroom a few times a day for a week, and it stung and confused me every time. I didn’t understand it. Why were they devils? Was that even okay to say? Was I a white devil? What the hell did I do?
The next year, I went to junior high in west L.A., a bigger and far more racially diverse school than the one I had graduated from. Because everyone was different at this school, because I was different, I began to truly understand what difference meant. People sometimes identified me as “white girl” in the hallways, and it made sense. After all, I was white. Really white: I burned easily, I wore Converse and shorts from the Gap, and my parents listened to The Grateful Dead. Twice I was asked, snickering, if my name was Becky. I learned some Spanish slang. I learned that some kids went to school on Saturday, to master their parents’ native tongues. A boy in English class pointed out that Black History month was the shortest month of the year–and that blew my mind. It had never occurred to me.
It was at this school, with my sense of self and the world all shook up, that I read Roots. Haley called his book “faction”–fiction mixed with fact, and later genealogists debunked his claim that the book told his actual family history. None of that mattered to me then–or matters now. My teacher had assigned it as a novel, and like all good fiction, it felt authentic. I devoured the book, and I couldn’t get it off my mind. I can still remember how I felt reading the section on the slave ship, Kunta Kinte packed in with hundreds of other slaves: the darkness, the suffering, the stench of bodies. I had learned about the Middle Passage in school, but it wasn’t until it was translated into narrative that it affected me so. I was appalled and frightened by a history I already knew, for the story of slavery is far more powerful than a “unit” on it.
In the eighth grade, I began to understand that I, and every American, had inherited something shameful. I began to connect race to history to power, and it was all because of a book.
Reading narrative requires empathy. The character’s perspective becomes your own, and through this relationship you begin to feel as another person would. As I read Roots, I felt what Kunta Kinte felt, saw what he saw, and by becoming him, I understood intimately the horrors of slavery. It’s why nonfiction slave narratives, like those of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, were so important to the abolitionist movement, and why fictional slave narratives persist today.
But stories also require complicity: the reader participates in the action of the story simply by imagining and interpreting it. As Zadie Smith points out in this short interview:
Fiction is like a hypothetical area in which to act. That’s what Aristotle thought—that fictional narrative was a place to imagine what you would do in this, that, or the other situation. I believe that, and it’s what I love most about fiction.
I agree with Smith here, and it’s why I don’t like books that make that arena of ethics too simplistic. I don’t need my characters to be heroic; in fact, I prefer them not to be. Their choices should be difficult, their situations complicated, and if they emerge from events unaffected or unscathed, then they do not seem authentic. They stop mattering to me.
But what if a novel’s “hypothetical area in which to act” is a historical landscape that places pressures on its characters that we haven’t experienced ourselves? What if that landscape is the antebellum South? My empathy is immediately ignited by these stories, but so too is my complicity. As a white reader, I’m simultaneously made to understand the experience of slavery, and I also must wrestle with how I’m implicated in that past. For although I identify with the book’s main characters, there’s another part of my brain that knows I can’t. If this book were made into a movie, I think, I’d look more like the overseer’s wife than the protagonist. I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced that awful feeling. On goodreads a few months ago, some dolt wrote that he hated books about slavery because, and I paraphrase: “I wasn’t the one to rape your great, great, great grandmother!” In other words, it wasn’t his fault slavery happened, he didn’t want to hear any more about it. And that’s the thing: slave narratives keep us hearing about it, they keep that chain between the past and the present alive. For me, reading one can be complicated and uncomfortable business, and it’s partly why I continue to seek them out.
But only partly. In Victor La Valle’s Year in Reading post, he wrote:
I don’t know about you, but when I read that book takes place during slavery my defenses go up immediately. It’s going to be “serious” and “important” and “teach us something” and….oh, I’m sorry, I almost fell asleep.
He’s right–“serious” and “important” are sometimes just synonyms for “boring.” But good books about slavery are readable, very much so. Is it wrong to say they’re entertaining? Well, they can be. This isn’t “tea towel” fiction, it’s fiction where the stakes are high, and people’s lives are at risk. There are secrets. There is real fear. The power dynamics between characters are complicated and fascinating, or they should be. People are fighting for a sliver of self that isn’t owned and denigrated by another person, and that makes me care and keeps me turning the pages.
One novel for which this is especially true is The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, the very book that LaValle recommended in his post. James’s novel takes place not in America, but Jamaica, at the turn of the 19th century. Told in dialect, it’s about a young female slave named Lilith who participates in a plot to overthrow her plantation master. Though it takes some time to get used to this voice and particular syntax, it’s wholly absorbing once you do, perhaps because the language is a kind of bridge into this past. The prose pulls you into Lilith’s consciousness, which reflects the violent and brutal world in which she lives.
And let me tell you: The Book of Night Women is one of the most violent and brutal books I have ever read. One day I read it for four hours straight, and the world was all wobbly and terrible after I put it down. Its unflinching depiction of slavery reminded me of something from Wyatt Mason’s profile of Edward P. Jones, whose novel The Known World, about black slaveholders in antebellum Virginia, explores the tangled, contradictory ways that slavery can involve and affect an entire community. In that novel, which I (and many others) consider a masterpiece, Jones quotes census numbers and scholarly texts–all of them made up. Mason writes:
What research on the subject Jones undertook was, in fact, quickly derailed after he happened upon an account of a white slave owner who spent her days abusing one of her black slaves, a little girl, by beating her head against a wall. “If I had wanted to tell the whole story of slavery, Americans couldn’t have taken that,” Jones told an interviewer. “People want to think that there was slavery, and then we got beyond it. People don’t want to hear that a woman would take a child and bang her head against the wall day after day. It’s nice that I didn’t read all those books. What I would have had to put down is far, far harsher and bleaker.
Marlon James, on the other hand, did seem to read all of those books, and his novel faces those harsh realities head on. But Jones and James’ books are similar in that their characters are multidimensional, no matter their race, and the smallest dramas are specific and deeply felt, which makes these historical backdrops all the more real for a contemporary reader. In the Book of Night Women, for instance, Lilith becomes romantically involved with her Irish overseer, Quinn. He believes, as an Irishman, that he understands oppression as she does, but she knows that can’t be (and we, as readers of this narrative, know it, too). Their relationship is tender and sexy at times, and weird and upsetting at others. And usually it’s all of those qualities simultaneously, and you feel at once turned on, repelled, skeptical, nervous, grateful and vulnerable.
Kindred by Octavia Butler asks the reader to feel myriad emotions, too, and it proves literally that a character cannot emerge from important events unscathed. Butler’s book is not only about slavery, it’s about time travel. That’s right: its main character, a black woman named Dana (actually her full name is Edana–which I loved), is again and again sent against her will to nineteenth-century Maryland to keep her white ancestor, Rufus, safe. If he dies too soon, she will never be born. The book’s premise reminds me of the comedian Louis CK’s routine about being white. (“Black people can’t fuck with time machines!” he jokes. “A black guy with a time machine is like, “Hey, nothing before 1980, thank you, I don’t want to go.”) Every time Dana returns from these trips as a slave, only a few minutes or a few hours have passed in her real life in 1970’s L.A. Nevertheless, she carries her experience of slavery on her body–she returns injured, scarred, and by the end of the book (it’s also where the book opens), she returns to the present without an arm. In other words, the past will always interfere with the present. She can’t fully understand this history without it damaging her.
Dana’s white husband Kevin is also taken into the past with her, and it’s here that the book is most compelling and thought-provoking to me. In Maryland, Dana and Kevin must play slave and master in order to spend the night together, and after Kevin’s trapped in the past for years, he takes on the same speech patterns as the whites during that time. The couple want to believe that their personal relationship can remain pure, that the political and social climate of slavery won’t infect their interactions, but that’s impossible. The very first time Dana returns from Maryland, she momentarily mistakes Kevin for a white southerner, out to hurt her, and she is frightened of him. The past has already trespassed onto the present, where she is supposed to feel safe and equal. It happens quickly.
With Kindred, I identified with Dana, even if, were I to time travel back to antebellum Maryland, my problems would probably be more similar to Kevin’s. But like Dana, I’m a woman who lives in Los Angeles. Like Dana, I’m a writer. And like Dana before she time travels, I’ve read about slavery, and so I can only approach it as a reader. Because Dana is a modern woman, she is wearing pants when she is transported, and in antebellum Maryland, characters ask her why she’s dressed as a man. They want to know why she talks as she does. And how she learned to write. They wonder aloud if she thinks she’s white–she sure does carry herself that way. Maybe Dana’s belief in her own equality ties her more strongly to me, a contemporary female reader, than race ties her to the black slaves in antebellum Maryland. Or it only does, until a point. Or it does and it doesn’t, at the same time. Either way, Butler has performed a kind of identity magic trick with her novel. By experiencing this world as Dana does, as any contemporary person would, I too must suffer at the hands of slavery.
When we’re younger, it feels like the only books we’re given about black people are about slavery, just as the only books we’re given about Jewish people are about the holocaust. There’s a danger there, as we might be led to believe these are the only stories such writers are allowed to tell. Not at all. As many contemporary black authors have proven, there are a zillion ways to write the black experience, and using slavery as a subject is just one of them. But writers like Marlon James, Edward P. Jones and Octavia Butler (and others, like the inimitable Toni Morrison–my God, have you read A Mercy?) prove that the fact of slavery is still upon us, it still haunts us, and that it can be told and retold in powerful, surprising and evocative ways that engage a reader. Or this reader, at least.
Sonya Chung’s first novel, Long for This World, will be released by Scribner in March 2010. She is currently at work on a second novel, Sebastian & Frederick. You can learn more about Sonya and her work at www.sonyachung.com.Here’s how it happens: an idea, or a question, or a theme begins to take shape in your mind. There is a tipping point, when it moves from background to foreground. Then: you see it everywhere. You are wearing Idea-X-colored glasses, everything speaks to this idea; it is a prism through which All Can Be Considered and Understood.Lydia Kiesling noted a related phenomenon in her essay here at The Millions, “The Reading Coincidence.”Throughout my life as a reader I have noticed this thing happening over and over; a book I read after finishing a seemingly unrelated book turns out to be linked to the previous book in some way… Every book you read in a short period of time mentions one of the other books you just read, or a movie you saw last week, or even, like, a dream someone told you against your will? Doesn’t it? And isn’t it weird?… What is it called? Is there, perhaps, a pertinent volume of Remembrance of Things Past to which I should address myself?It is weird. And I don’t know either to whom or what we should “address ourselves” in order to understand. But following is the anatomy of my Idea Coincidence around the notion of free:June 11 – My blog response to Dan Baum’s twitter-essay about being fired from the New Yorker. I ponder the tensions between institutional sanction and intellectual-creative freedom.June 19 – A friend refers me to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Spirit of Place” from his Studies in Classic American Literature. “Men are not free when they are doing just what they like. The moment you can do just what you like, there is nothing you care about doing.” June 25-27 – I read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Jacob, an Anglo-Dutch trader, inherits New England farm land in the early years of the American slave trade. He and his English wife Rebekka, are orphaned (literally and emotionally, respectively), free from family ties; and they reject church-community ties, forging instead a life of untethered self-determination. “They leaned on each other root and crown. Needing no one outside their sufficiency. Or so they believed… Those [church] women seemed flat to [Rebekka], convinced they were innocent and therefore free.”Then, a week of being haunted by Rebekka’s fate: Jacob dies of smallpox, she contracts the same; her isolation engulfs her (her children have also died). Their makeshift family – a Native American bondswoman, two cast-off slave girls, two indentured servants, and a blacksmith (a free black man) – begins to come apart:They once thought they were a kind of family because together they had carved companionship out of isolation. But the family they imagined they had become was false. Whatever each one loved, sought or escaped, their futures were separate and anyone’s guessOn death’s door, in feverish lucidity, Rebekka asks, “Were the Anabaptists right?… [Was] her stubborn self-sufficiency outright blasphemy?… She had only to stop thinking and believe.” She recovers, then joins the church; her deal with God. The indentured servant Scully observes: “Mistress passed her days with the joy of a clock. She was a penitent, pure and simple. Which to him meant that underneath her piety was something cold if not cruel.” Was Rebekka, the only technically free woman in the novel, ever truly free?July 2 – In an effort to shake off some of Morrison’s (and Rebekka’s) haunting presence, a light movie rental, Waitress, by Adrienne Shelley. Protagonist Jenna Hunterson, played by Keri Russell, wants to break free of her tyrannical, dim, pathologically love-hungry husband Earl, but finds herself unhappily pregnant with his baby. In the end, she finds her freedom in the mother-child bond.July 5 – I read Adam Zagajewski’s heady essay, “Toil and Flame,” on Polish painter Jozef Czapski. For Czapski, freedom was a way of seeing, an inner disposition. “Seeing must be governed by one principle alone, the principle of ‘inner freedom'” – which, according to Zagajewski, is rooted in Keats’s negative capability, and a dynamic “not-knowing” that is essentially religious – “very strong faith and very strong doubt alongside a complete inability to stay fixed in one single, stable metaphysical conviction.” July 9 – Publishers Weekly article on the hoopla around Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price. Upon its release, angry readers accused Anderson of claiming that everything online should be free. Says Anderson: “… the book is not about how everything should be free, but about how the economics of free are developing in the increasingly digital world… I knew that the word ‘free’ was a misunderstood, confusing word, and it has triggered fear and longing in equal amounts. I’m now dealing with the consequences of just how complicated the word is.” July 14 – Bezalel Stern’s guest post at The Millions on Richard Ford’s Independence Day. Stern: “Real independence, Ford posits, is all about making connections. Independence is with people.”What does it all mean? The fulcrum for me is Morrison’s Rebekka. She is “free” – a white woman, living outside of religious institutionalism, unobligated to crown or lineage or patriarchy; free from the dictates of group or creed. Tied only to one person, one man, her kind (and equally untethered) husband Jacob. She has arrived at this station through a series of choices – in each case making a calculated determination to trade in the devil she knows for the devil she doesn’t:”…her father got notice of a man looking for a strong wife rather than a dowry… her prospects were servant, prostitute, wife, and although horrible stories were told about each of those careers, the last one seemed safest… marriage to an unknown husband in a far-off land had distinct advantages… America. Whatever the danger, how could it possibly be worse?Religion, as Rebekka experienced it from her mother, was a flame fueled by a wondrous hatred. Her parents treated each other and their children with glazed indifference and saved their fire for religious matters… It was when [the Anabaptists] refused to baptize her first-born, her exquisite daughter, that Rebekka turned away. Weak as her faith was, there was no excuse for not protecting the soul of an infant from eternal perdition.But then here is Lawrence, cautioning against a dangerous kind of “masterless-ness,” a specifically American version of freedom defined in negative terms, and by flight:Those Pilgrim Fathers and their successors never came here for freedom of worship. What did they set up when they got here? Freedom, would you call it?… They came largely to get away… That’s why most people have come to America, and still do come. To get away from everything they are and have been… Which is all very well, but it isn’t freedom. Rather the reverse. A hopeless sort of constraint. It is never freedom till you find something you really positively want to be…Zagajewski/Czapski bring Morrison and Lawrence together for me: Rebekka possessed some strain of Czapski’s inner freedom, a dynamic not-knowing; her “weak faith” was her faith – faith and doubt together. Partnered to Jacob, she was able to sustain a living doubtful faith, her own version of what Lawrence terms a “deep, inward voice of religious belief” to which an individual must be “obedient” in order to be truly free. One of my favorite moments in the novel is this exchange between Rebekka and the Native American servant Lina, Rebekka’s closest confidante:R: I don’t think God knows who we are. I think he would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think he knows about us… He’s doing something else in the world. We are not on His mind.L: What is He doing then, if not watching over us?R: Lord knows.The strength of Rebekka’s doubt-faith only fails her after Jacob dies; her essential solitariness, and the demons of her cut-off past, are no longer counterbalanced by her flesh-and-blood life of goodness and freedom with the man on whom she bet everything. Morrison paints her as a tragic figure – strong enough for a free, uninstitutionalized life only as long as a man anchors her world; in his absence, the thin-threaded ties that have bound her to her motley household of strays fray and unravel abruptly.Morrison’s socio-historical context is specific; but the implications may echo into the present universal. Where does our freedom, our “masterless-ness,” leave us in the end? For modern, ambitious urban-dwellers, for instance, who’ve fled constraining or otherwise unfamilial families, the tenuousness of patchwork community and makeshift family simmers uneasily beneath busy lives of creativity and/or career. Will these new and sometimes unconventional threads hold? Perhaps independence is indeed about “making connections,” as Ford’s Frank Bascombe comes to realize (according to Bezalel Stern); but the nature and context of those connections matters. Not all of them will endure. And true freedom seems to be a condition that reaches for both depth and permanence.Is it the parent-child connection that is, in the end, The Profound and Enduring Bond which engenders a true inner freedom? Both Morrison and Adrienne Shelley posit motherhood as a miraculous road to freedom – as if childlessness is a woman’s specific version of Lawrence’s masterless-ness. The slave girl Sorrow in A Mercy gives birth to a child and then renames herself:She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee. “I am your mother,” she said. “My name is Complete.Waitress’s Jenna Hunterson also looks into her newborn daughter’s eyes and is instantly endowed with clarity, courage, a moral center. No longer desperate to flee, she finds liberation right where she is, in the identity of mother. (Hmm… Maybe this is a “Mom Book” question.)”Free” is a complicated word indeed, Chris Anderson. And while at first the commercial use of the word may not seem relevant, it does raise relevant questions: free equals something for nothing, in the parlance of commerce. At no cost. But it seems clear that true freedom does indeed come at cost. The uproar over Anderson’s book reveals a fear that the cost of “free” would be borne disproportionately by media organizations, artists, content providers. For Dan Baum, the cost of creative freedom was a burned (or at least singed) bridge with a powerful cultural-media institution, as well as the financial stability that I would guess “freed” him in many ways. Fellow freelancers out there may feel the cost of your freedom from institutional-employment daily: isolation, financial worry, wide swings in self-esteem (my attitude toward my freelancer’s freedom has been known to shift by the hour, depending on what does or does not arrive in my email box).In the end, I address myself to you, thoughtful reader. “I would rather start a conversation about free, even in wildly misinformed, polarized, noisy ways, if it gets people thinking,” Anderson said about his book.Perhaps to start we can embrace our dynamic not-knowing – all that we might be fleeing and whatever doubt-faith undergirds our present freedom. We can wonder if we are on God’s mind, if self-sufficiency is really a virtue; if we should have children (or not) or live closer to (or further from) our biological families; if we should keep freelancing or take a real job; what free means and what it really costs. Suspended between drudgery and flame is what Jozef Czapski called his work, implying perhaps that only in the liminal state can we fully experience the process of freedom – living out choices and circumstances, forging and casting off various ties that bind – all of which ultimately teaches us what it means to be free.