One evening in grad school, half-drunk and Googling my own name, I found a blog run by one of my fiction students. I shouldn’t have read it, but of course I read it. “I already hate this class,” she wrote. “My teacher is a stuck-up snob who won’t even let us write the things we want to write.” She wanted to be a romance novelist, but my syllabus had forbidden a long list of plots and genres: romance, detective stories, space adventures, dying grandparents, breakups, and so on. Why even enroll in a creative writing course if you didn’t want to make great art?
When I started teaching creative writing in 2005, my syllabus assigned almost exclusively white male authors of realist short fiction. I had no theories on what fiction should look like and had never even heard the term “pedagogy” before. I was 23 and in grad school and just trying to survive.
I was not a serious reader as a college student, and so most of my reading was either assigned to me, or randomly pulled from anthologies. My college courses were heavily focused on dead American men like Ernest Hemingway, Nathanael West, and Raymond Carver, with perhaps a single story by Jhumpa Lahiri or an excerpt from Beloved. A few professors pushed me outside this zone, but mostly I was reading a narrow slice of “the canon” and nothing else.
In my class, the only acceptable genre was the one I had learned to associate with so-called serious fiction: sad middle-aged men trying to reclaim their youthful glory, preferably while drunk on cheap whiskey. Maybe include a scene where he’s digging a ditch, or thinking about when he was good at baseball. Everything is subtext and nobody ever says what they mean. These were not the kinds of stories I was writing or even identified with, but I was in the business of creating Literature.
Before they walk into your classroom, many undergraduates have never written fiction seriously before. Some have dabbled, and occasionally you meet a preternaturally driven young person, but the average student brings some talents to the room with little idea of how to shape them into something meaningful.
You will very likely be the only creative writing teacher they ever have.
Running a passable fiction workshop is pretty easy. You assign some short stories for the first month, and after that everyone writes two stories of their own. The assigned readings don’t have to relate in any way to the student stories; they’re just there as exemplars of what good fiction might look like. When you workshop the students’ pieces, you can follow a script:
Name one thing you loved about the story and one thing you would change
Which characters or moments would you like to know more about?
Did anything in here confuse you?
Evaluate the dialogue.
Any sentences you loved? Any you want to edit?
What did you think of the ending?
During discussion, drop the names of a couple authors they probably haven’t read. End by offering your own critique, and include a writing aphorism, something that sounds very wise but you also know to be not totally true, something like: the choices a character makes must always be tied to a mistake in his past. People will write this down. They will have had a few laughs. When they leave, they will have learned almost nothing. You’ll get great student evaluations at the end of the semester.
Most stories turned in for workshop are bad. As a novice teacher, I took these bad stories personally, as if the students had written them just to spite me.
My syllabi resulted in scattershot work and a sense among the students that no choices really mattered. Nobody was writing anything good. Even the obviously talented students were flailing. The best you could hope for, most times, were glimmers of great ideas. Novice writers tend to imitate what they see, rather than being driven by some innate idea of great art, so a poorly-conceived syllabus will lead to poorly-conceived stories.
I’m not saying you can’t teach creative writing; I’m saying I couldn’t teach creative writing. I survived for a few years on the strength of my enthusiasm and my ability to make undergrads laugh. Syllabi like the one I used when I started have become the default approach for many professors, though they’re so limited in their effectiveness that any good work you get is an accident. It’s both prescriptive and not; it sets rigid boundaries but with no clear rationale. It reinforces the traditional notion that white male American realism is the only valuable kind of writing, and then passively says, “Just write me some stories like this,” with no other guidelines.
Syllabi like mine have become the default for novice creative writing professors. I think this development is partly a product of the growth of MFA programs. Increasingly, English departments are assigning intro Creative Writing courses to grad students, who receive minimal training and may be required to use a standard syllabus. The standard syllabi are designed to be simple, so that anybody can be plugged in to the class at the last minute and run it smoothly. They’re designed by a well-intentioned person in the department who needs to endure several rounds of approvals from higher-ranking faculty, at least some of whom don’t believe Creative Writing is a serious academic pursuit. A system like this is bound to produce stale, myopic syllabi that offer as limited a view of what it means to be a writer as possible.
Five years ago, I was teaching a course called Creative Acts, which is a basic intro to creative writing, and is open to all majors. A lot of students take this class because they assume it will be an easy elective. The quality of the work I had been receiving was poor, and nobody in the room cared. After we workshopped one student’s story and everyone handed her their critiques, she pointedly stood, walked to the front of the room, and dropped them all in the trash can next to my desk. In the next class period, we were discussing yet another student story about a college kid who wants to get drunk and does, eventually, get drunk, and I was despairing as I tried to drag us into some conversation besides whether or not people found the main character “relatable.” An alarm sounded on a phone in the back room, and suddenly half the class stood and started doing the Macarena. You don’t realize how long a single minute can last until you endure a spectacle like this, realizing nobody in the room respects you or your work, and further realizing you’ve given them no reason to do so. When they finished, I ended class, announcing that I needed some time to reevaluate all of my life choices.
It was too late to salvage that course, but before the next semester, I trashed my syllabus and rewrote it from scratch. I borrowed heavily from my friend Matthew Vollmer, a professor at Virginia Tech, and designed a course that required the completion of eight specific short exercises written within various formal and content-based constraints: a story in the collective first person, one about a monster, one in the form of instructions, one driven by a single magical element, and so on. Each assignment was paired with published stories that modeled these techniques, which forced me to open my reading list to a much broader range of authors and genres. With specific tasks to accomplish, the students turned in dramatically better work. They hated some of the assignments, but there wasn’t as much pressure on each one to be perfect, because there was something new to do every week. It made writing fun, but it also gave us some grounding principles to discuss, besides, “did you like this story?” And it implicitly opened up the idea of writing itself, of what it could contain and who could make it.
The best thing I read that semester was a story titled, “The Anxious Boy’s Guide to Piecing Your Mother Back Together.” It was written in the form of a manual, complete with Table of Contents and Index, and it told the heartbreaking, clearly autobiographical, story of a gay, Latinx college student trying to survive college while also caring for his chronically ill mother. He read parts of it aloud in class and a few people cried. It wasn’t a perfect story, by any means, but it was the realest, most exciting work I’d ever gotten in a creative writing course. And then it kept happening: every week, they turned in stories like this, with students putting themselves on the line and investing themselves emotionally in the work in a way they never had before. On a course evaluation, one student wrote, “This class changed everything I ever thought about writing.”
Last November, close to midnight, I sat in the dark staring at my laptop. I was well into my second hour of watching sword fights on YouTube. I switched between samurai movies, anime, medieval battle scenes, and pirate duels. Two of my students just kept writing about sword fights, and I was trying to be a better teacher. If I was going to critique the battle scenes in their novels-in-progress, I needed to understand what made a good sword fight. When I spoke to one of these students, I discussed the usual things—characterization, precision, pacing—and he nodded and listened and took notes. Then he said, “But what about the battles? Were they exciting?” And I wasn’t sure. So I had to do my homework. For two consecutive nights, I watched the videos. I even read the comments.
The next day, I used the term “saber,” and a student immediately corrected me: “It’s actually a claymore,” he said. “There’s a pretty big difference.” We discussed katana, cutlasses, and something they called, “a horse-killing sword,” a thing that, I assure you, actually exists. Somehow this led to an anime discussion, in which I vaguely recognized the names of some Yu-Gi-Oh! characters and somebody named Goku. There is so much I don’t know and my students do. I was drowning in this conversation, but I think we made some progress. It was one of the best teaching days of my life.
This past fall, I taught the Capstone, the final course our fiction students take in the major. I wanted it to feel like something important and difficult.
At this point, I was working with experienced, smart, and driven students who had a sense of what they wanted to write. They designed their own final project, in consultation, and I didn’t restrict them in any way. Instead of conducting short formal experiments, we split our time between reading criticism (about genre, aesthetics, cultural appropriation, and gender issues in publishing) and short stories that helped to illustrate or inform these debates (some authors we read: Ken Liu, Danielle Evans, J. Robert Lennon, Cristina Henríquez, Paul Beatty, Aimee Bender, Lesley Nneka Arimah). The constraint imposed on them was a philosophical one: they were forced to think about the way their work would interact with the world outside our classroom. I encouraged them to go wild with their stories, as long as they could explain themselves.
Which meant I read: sword fights, an epic novel-in-progress featuring no fewer than 10 fantasy races, a collection of erotica stories, a chapbook of stories in experimental forms, some batches of conventionally literary stories, one historical novel that involved a lesbian ghost, and more than a few interdimensional travel stories. There was also a series of realist literary stories in which every now and then a monster or a talking lizard would appear.
I do not enjoy all of these. I’ve learned that I find sword fights, even the very best of them, boring. I was often struggling to keep up in our discussions, no matter how much time I spent on Tumblr reading about the differences between goblins and orcs. And yet: I never enjoyed a semester more. I know it was the best teaching I’ve ever done.
It was the rising energy of the students putting something new and weird and daring into the world, and me straining to connect with it and help them find a shape for it—that’s when I felt most like I was doing a job that mattered.
My job is not to define literature for them, but to give them the vocabulary and tools—and the inspiration—to define it for themselves.
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.