In retrospect, it’s easy to look at the life and career of John Williams and see a disconnect. Here’s a writer who was in charge of the Association of Writers and Poets, who networked his way into the lit scene through small presses, and who won the National Book Award for his 1973 novel Augustus. He edited Denver Quarterly for years, and his sophomore novel, Stoner—and his career as a whole— has enjoyed a recent word-of-mouth resurgence of interest. How, then, could such a writer view himself as an outsider?
Charles J. Shields notes in his newly released Williams biography, The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner and the Writing Life, that “readers of histories and biographies have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, but to the person living it, the darkness is all around.” Shields shows readers the insecurity that drove Williams to excellence in his writing career. His determination to succeed as a writer led him to cut corners in his personal and professional lives, to the detriment of himself and others. Through exhaustive research and sharp prose, Shields has composed a portrait of the complicated author and the particular darknesses that drove Williams to write, to overcompensate, to philander, to mansplain.
Shields’s framing device is simple but effective: A woman named Anne Marie Candido answers a grant-funded ad to sort through Williams’s papers, allowing readers to sift through the author’s life as she does. Candido meets him, works with him, warms to him.
Almost immediately, a revelation surfaces: Little John Williams was a living lie. His mother, Amelia, had married a man named George Williams—but he was not John’s father, Amelia revealed when John was 9. John’s true father was John Edward Jewell, who had flipped a parcel of land for cash, and was then robbed and subsequently killed later in the day by a hitchhiker. Or not. Shields reveals that no newspaper account of this killing exists, no proof, despite Amelia’s insistence that she was a widow. Regardless, for little John Williams, “news that he was not the person he thought he was called into question the importance of telling the truth,” a thread that Shields expertly weaves throughout the rest of the biography.
John Williams enjoyed stories of all kinds, often reading magazines with his mother and stepfather around the light of a kerosene lantern. He saw a film adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and was smitten by the performance of the dashing Ronald Colman, whose pencil-thin moustache and ascot conveyed a worldliness and authority to the young Texas boy watching in the theater. Williams wrote an eighth-grade essay on Colman’s role as the novel’s Sidney Carton, and was lauded for his work—the first time, Williams later said, he was praised for anything.
Williams applied his aptitude for telling stories to his own life. He enlisted for World War II shortly after his marriage, and was assigned to a small airbase in India, near the Tibetan border. His duty as radioman was harrowing: the C-47 planes Williams flew in didn’t have enough power to elevate above the Himalayas, a terrifying prospect before the addition of winter ice muddied the navigation instruments’ control. Inevitably, Williams was shot down, breaking ribs when the plane fell, and narrowly evading a troop of Japanese soldiers. But, as Shields states, Williams’s name does not appear on any official flight documentation. Williams’s story about being shot down is no doubt based on actual anecdotes from soldiers, and is in that way believable, one of many instances of Williams telling stories to live up to a fictional image of self, referring back to the derring-do of Ronald Colman.
Williams’s marriage (the first of four) didn’t survive the war. He relocated briefly to Key West, then to California, where his mother ailed. While in California, he began pitching publishers with his first novel, Nothing but the Night, and fell into the orbit of Alan Swallow, owner and operator of Swallow Press. The tiny Denver-based operation is easily understandable in punk rock terms: Swallow kept his prices intentionally low to make his product more democratic; he was an advocate of regionalism and didn’t advertise, preferring the books to be found by discerning readers. It was Swallow who urged Williams to enroll at the University of Denver on the potential of Nothing but the Night. Williams was accepted. He became an associate editor of Swallow Press, reading submitted manuscripts from new and established authors.
One of these authors was Yvor Winters, who discussed his philosophy of “practicing rationality in art over feeling” in a Swallow Press release titled In Defense of Reason. This book was especially impactful on Williams, who was impressionably new to academia. Williams fell under the older author’s spell, adapting his anti-Romantic, pro-Renaissance stand. Flush with these newly absorbed ideas about Romanticism, Williams wrote Butcher’s Crossing, in which an East Coast transplant travels to a Wild Western town intent on striking it rich on buffalo hides. His party decamps to a hidden valley full of buffalo, kills them all, and is snowed in for the winter, a possibility they didn’t plan for. They lose all the buffalo hides months later when they return to the town, left abandoned after an overabundance of hides killed demand, and the market. With context and retrospect, the novel is an attack on the myths about the Wild West, influenced by Winters. Its fate, though, was sealed by a savage panning from The New York Times, which misconstrued the book as a Western, rather than a critique of romanticism about the Wild West.
To cope with the crushing review, Williams threw himself anew into the character he had constructed for himself, modeled after Ronald Colman. Shields says that “By fashioning himself as a cultured, sophisticated loner, like the Hollywood leading man of his youth, Ronald Colman, he restored his self-confidence.” Part of this renewed approach was immersion in the politics of University of Denver’s English department. The faculty was mostly male and operated with a level of misogyny and chauvinism that was sadly typical of the times. Shields pulls no punches in these depictions, later focusing on new faculty member Peggy McIntosh for discussion of the department and its gendered politics. It was McIntosh who coined the phrases “male privilege” and “white privilege” in her published work, and her account of the departmental interactions is a textbook instance of both. Williams is described as boorish and threatened by non-white male colleagues, with no sign of awareness about his behaviors. This narrow view extends to the larger literary scene, which is portrayed as a boys’ club.
Even this privilege could not protect him from scandal. Following the publication of Butchers’ Crossing, Williams pitched a textbook of romantic poetry to publishers, with the ulterior motive of highlighting the lesser-known poet Hulke Greville, on whom Williams had written his dissertation. By stoking Greville’s critical fires, Williams hoped to improve the chances of his dissertation being published. The assemblage of poets, however, was largely cribbed, uncredited, from the scholarship of Yvor Winters. According to Shields, “the overlap was about 80 percent.” Winters was angry about “the lack of attribution, which he believed was deliberate and typical of Williams.” In addition to what amounts to plagiarism, Shields discusses Williams as a textbook example of privilege, stating that “he had taken shortcuts since the beginning of his teaching career,” often delivering lectures culled from the work of his colleagues and passing the work off as his own as he devoted his energies to writing novels. Winters condemned Williams as arrogant, leaving the author again as an outsider.
Despite this, Williams soldiered on, weaving interdepartmental conflicts into the narrative of his own life in Stoner, the campus novel which since his passing has enjoyed a revival of interest. The novel’s titular protagonist continues Williams’s thematic exploration of the perils of romanticism. Like the author, William Stoner grew up on a farm. Through immersion in university life, Stoner is able to dissociate himself from the pastoral backdrop he came up in. Shields says that for Stoner, “language makes it possible for him to reach new consciousness. Words permit reasoning, which can be used to concretize elusive qualities of life.” The novel’s deliberate pace did not find the audience Williams hoped, nor did a rave review from the New Republic, leaving Williams again on the outside looking in.
Despite this, he continued teaching even after his plagiarism scandal. Williams started attending the prestigious Bread Loaf conference in 1968, where he continued networking with authors, adding new members to the literary boys’ club where he sought solace.
Through his Bread Loaf connections, Williams managed to get the rapidly out-of-print Stoner republished by a small press at around the same time as the publication of his novel Augustus, a polyphonic rumination on the titular emperor’s rise and fall. After its publication in 1972, Williams “took up a prominent spot in the English Department office, where he sat all day smoking and drinking coffee, expecting that some of his colleagues would congratulate him.” One of the many strengths of Shields’s biography is the duality with which it may be read: Depending on one’s outlook, Williams’s aggressive need for validation may be as a result of his upbringing—or it may be symptomatic of a typical white male privilege. Shields portrays Williams’s disappointment when things don’t go his way, and through anecdotes about his colleagues, depicts Williams’s seeming lack of metacognition about his position as a tenured professor, his large group of colleagues, even his talent.
One sees both sides of the coin when Augustus wins the National Book Award in 1973. The catch is that the judges couldn’t agree whether the honor should be bestowed on Williams’s book or on John Barth’s Chimera. The deciding panel, flummoxed, simply decided to split the award. Williams embarked on guest lecturer positions across the country. Back in Denver, his accomplishments were ignored by his colleagues because of his drinking, his lack of commitment to students, his philandering. Finally, the college invented an Endowed Chair title for him, asking only that he teach two of three quarters a year. Williams became increasingly less effective as a professor as health problems ravaged his lungs, retiring from teaching in 1985. He died of respiratory failure in 1994 while working on a novel titled The Sleep of Reason.
John Williams assumed a “carefully constructed identity” for himself, an outward projection of a literary swashbuckler like his hero Ronald Colman in A Tale Of Two Cities. Charles J. Shields’s The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel is similarly a tale of two John Williams: the one trying to live up to the fiction of self he invented, and the one oblivious to the fact that this fantasy does not come across in the intended manner.
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
“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 closet-like 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 borrowed 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 credit: Pexels/Plush Design Studio.
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
It’s always hard for me to choose the best book I’ve read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I’ve read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year’s included Matthew Kneale’s wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro’s quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa’s masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield’s eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen’s Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?).
But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the “most printed original English book.” It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, “What if you reversed that? ‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.’ Doesn’t work at all, does it?” And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…” Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses.
A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first–or, perhaps, the second–sentence–and I wept over the last.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the story, in case you’ve waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away.
Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction–eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader–the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man’s shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did.
For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor).
Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page.
It’s official. I’m done!This month, I finally finished my Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Box Set. I read nearly every page over a broken, two-month period (the first month – my Millions debut – can be found here). It was a difficult, grueling battle, but I made it through with only a few bruises and just one small paper cut. And now, as I had always hoped, I have a full awareness of all things “literature.” I’m ready to start teaching World Lit at Harvard.Well, actually, I’m not. In fact, I’ve given myself an even greater test: I’m giving myself three years to fully comprehend at least one title from the classic authors I’ve (until now) completely missed.But that’s the future. This is the present. Revel with me as I celebrate this accomplishment!Choosing one of these selections as the “book of the month” turned out to be more difficult than actually reading them. I read 36 books this month: part of a classic (the very long, very complicated, incredibly wordy and not entirely pleasant A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) and 35 54-page Pocket Penguins. That’s a lot of books to filter through.Obviously, I can’t choose any of the books that I didn’t really fully read or any of the books that I quickly skimmed through on my way to another selection. Yeah, that’s right. Sometimes I cheated. You can’t blame me – this entire collection features a wide array of genres: poetry (skimmed), history (primarily rooted in World War II, most of which I read, but honestly didn’t read fully and skimmed), biography (Churchill’s and Percy’s biographies were skimmed, Selassie’s outright skipped after the first ten pages) and memoir (many were skipped after a few pages). I couldn’t possibly do it all without screaming.This left me with about 20-25 works of fiction that I enjoyed at varying degrees.What I found is that this entire 70-book collection is really a celebration of the short story. When condensing an author into 54 pages, a publisher can only choose the shortest of selections. A majority of the time, this means a selection of short stories. When “true” short stories weren’t chosen, we find excerpts or expurgated chapters instead. Regardless of its original form, it’s a short story all the same. I was blind to it through the first 35 books, but this time it was all I could think of.Throughout the second half of my Anniversary travels, I marveled at how so many authors could sum up a literary career into just 54 pages – how they could completely buck the novel’s tradition and contain their words concisely into these Penguin selections.So with that in mind, I needed to choose one book – the one book that captures everything that short stories are to me: emotion, curiosity and mystery; ultimately, thought-provoking literature that drives me to read on and devour the next short story while still feeling the heat of the previous one.Enter Melissa Bank’s The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine. The Book of the Month.I have found that most short story writing involves a quick slice of life, one that reveals only as much as needed, leaving the reader a chance to fill in the gaping holes. A great short story fills those holes without much effort, using the power of its passages as an assumed backbone, driving characters together not through writing, but through the normal constraints of society and culture.Bank’s title story does a great job of doing this. In it we find a young woman – an assistant editor who is not entirely sure of her own talents – struggling with two relationships; a love/hate connection with her on-again-off-again boyfriend and a wait-and-see connection with her father, a once strong man who is dying from leukemia.The emotion is there – this is a young woman who doesn’t know what to do in life. We’ve all been there, obviously; unsure of our place, wondering if we chose the right life, the right partner, or the right career. In this case, we find a woman who is being overwhelmed through every aspect of life – at work, with an older boyfriend, and with her father’s sickness. She feels pulled in every direction, forced to accept her position editing books (a job that is quite below her position) and to accept the criticism from an older man – her personal father figure. All the while, her actual father is sick – very sick.The curiosity is there. Where did these people meet? Why has she made these decisions, and why does she continue to stick by them? How will her father end up, and will her boyfriend be there to support her. Is he drinking again?Is she safe with herself?As good as Bank’s story was, it all kept bringing me back to the style as a whole – the short story as a concept and viable literary interest. Short stories are designed to view a small, minute portion of life and weigh it against society. They’re created to leave a suspenseful impression, one that makes you wish you could know the rest of the story and one that – for just a few seconds – leaves you considering just writing the story yourself.Often times, this is exactly what happens. In your mind, you have the ability to fill in the holes, to create biographies based on the hints an author leaves behind. There’s no better writing prompt than a short story. And it seems sometimes like there’s no harder piece of literature to actually compose.It is said that poetry is literature condensed. It gives each word an incredible weight that cannot be reproduced in prose (lest it become too weighty and difficult). Short stories take the weight away from the words and give it to the moment. Each second of a shortened piece of literature means the world. It is intensely analyzed and purposefully constructed. For me, it’s the most perfect form of writing.So let’s hear it for short stories, eh? Let’s hear it for Lorrie Moore, for David Sedaris, and for Lewis Thomas. A round of applause for Ian McEwan, for Will Self, and for David Foster Wallace. And let’s not let the brevity of a short story ruin the weight of its moment in the spotlight.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct