“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.
In a cool, shaded bedroom in the southern city of Port Harcourt, my mother is lying on her back on the rumpled bed, a book held open over her face, her eyes burning into it. I’m three years old and I want her to love me. I want her to look at me right this moment — to tell me all the time how much I mean to her. I have been perched at the bed’s edge for some time, waiting to be noticed, watching the play of expressions on her face. When she quivers again with laughter I can’t hold back my curiosity any longer, and I ask, “Why are you laughing, Mama?”
No answer. I cannot understand what she finds so fascinating in that bundle of paper.
I raise my voice. “Mama! Tell me why you’re laughing.” My cry works: it draws her eyes to me. But they are bright with an emotion I know isn’t for me.
“Go and play with Boma,” she says. And then she mutters under her breath: “You’ll understand why I’m laughing when you can read.”
Boma, my younger brother, is a baby. He cries all the time. Right now he is in my father’s arms in the parlor — I can hear him wailing for attention, as usual. When he arrived he took away a chunk of the affection that I thought was only mine, and now this thing, this book that brightens my mother’s eyes and makes her giggle, is stealing what’s left.
I want to be a book. I want my mother to look at me all the time.
I decide to learn to read.
My mother and my father quarrelled over me yesterday. My father is teaching me to read, I asked him to, but yesterday he grew annoyed at my slow progress over the letter X and he smacked my bottom until I screamed for my mother. My mother took me in her arms, she said I was too young and he should go easy on me, that I was learning faster than many my age. He’s old enough — he shouldn’t have asked if he wasn’t ready, my father said before he slammed his study door.
I’m old enough.
Tomorrow I will try to be ready.
In a few weeks I will be four.
Crouched in a closed dark wardrobe, my heart pounding, I’m listening to the sound of feet outside. The footfalls sneak closer, stop in front of the wardrobe, and I strain my ears. I wait fearfully to be caught.
I’m six years old and I have no friends. Everybody loves Boma. He’s playful, friendly, and he’s not afraid of cats. He laughs all the time: a deep rolling laugh that sounds like a toy version of my father’s. He looks like my father too. Everybody says so. Then they ask me whom I resemble, why am I so quiet, why am I such a bookworm? That’s what Priye asked:
“Why are you such a bookworm?”
“Because books are exciting, stupid!” I snap at her. Then I feel sorry. Girls must always be treated nicely, my mother says.
Priye always comes over to play with Boma. She is the daughter of Uncle Sam, our next-door neighbor and my father’s best friend on the street. My father and Uncle Sam are chatting in the study, laughing out loud, and Priye is in my bedroom searching for me. Boma is hiding—we are playing hide-and-seek. I was reading The Snow Queen when Priye came, but after she asked me to join her and Boma in their game, I dropped my book. The Snow Queen makes me cold and sad and lonely. And no one ever asks me to play.
Now I’m crouched in the wardrobe, hoping to be found so I can return to my book.
Boma and I are on holidays with my father in a big empty house in the mid-western city of Benin. I miss my mother, who is back at home in Port Harcourt, and I hope she’s missing me too. My father has taken Boma out shopping, and I’m alone at home. I’m being punished for throwing a crying tantrum. Because my younger brother ran off with my book and I couldn’t catch him.
I’m nine years old and I’m afraid that my parents don’t love each other anymore.
Now I’m lying on my belly in my father’s bed. I’m reading The Old Man and the Sea.
I want to be a fisherman when I grow up. O to roam the seas with a book and a hook!
My mother refuses to buy me trousers. She prefers small shorts in bright colours: pink, lime green, powder blue. When I walk down my street the other boys tease me about the books I’m always carrying. They call me a girl because I read too much, because of my bright shorts and my smooth soft legs, and because I look like a girl. My mother tells me they are unruly little bullies. But still she refuses to buy me trousers. “Nobody bullies Boma,” she always says when I complain. But that’s because Boma never walks around with books. And he can fight.
But I don’t say this. I’m almost 10 and it’s a sin to rat on a brother.
I want to be a pirate when I grow up.
I’m in a classroom of boys and girls all shrieking with abandon. The teacher has stepped outside, and while my classmates rush about I remain seated at my desk. I’m reading a novel: Roots.
The series runs every night on national TV.
My mother’s friend, Aunty Gloria, lent me the book when I told her how much I feared for Kunta Kinte, how disappointed I was that the bad men were winning the good ones. I couldn’t wait to see the good men begin to win. In the fairytales the good men always win.
“Read the book,” Aunty Gloria said. “You’re old enough to learn how the world really is.”
I’m 10 years old.
A strong wind now blows the scent of sunlight through the open windows of the classroom, and it riffles the book’s pages. Then a shadow looms, the wind is blocked, and I look up. Gogo is standing beside my desk and frowning down at me. I’m worried, threatened by his presence, but I’m not surprised to see him. Gogo has been trying to pick a fight with me for the past few weeks, ever since I scored the highest in the English Language test. He hasn’t succeeded only because he’s the strongest boy in the class and it’s not considered cowardly to run from him. All this time I have been a running target, but now I’m a sitting duck. And I know that he knows it. I lower my eyes from his, and I hear him say, “What are you reading?”
“Roots,” I answer. Then I hurry to explain, my voice soft, trembling, ingratiating. “They show it every night on NTA. It’s the Kunta Kinte film.”
“Give it to me,” he says, and extends his hand.
I don’t like sharing my books, but I hand it to him anyway. Maybe he likes books like me.
No, he doesn’t. He closes the book and flings it across the classroom. It flaps through the open window and falls in the sand outside. Then he bends over my desk and laughs ha ha ha into my face. I feel like crying — I borrowed that book. You must take good care of books, my mother always says.
The class falls silent as I rise slowly to my feet. My face is burning and I feel like peeing. I know Gogo wants me to cry so he can laugh a real laugh, and this knowledge gives me the strength to fight back my tears. I step out of my desk and walk towards the window.
“Stop there!” Gogo yells, and though I flinch at his shout, I don’t stop. I can now hear him coming behind me — he is banging on desktops to frighten me. I reach the window, and then turn around, and he stops five desks away. His face is really, really angry.
“Did you hear me say stop?”
I don’t answer. I hold his gaze.
“Are you looking at me with bad eye? Do you think you can fight me, you son of a–?”
I am shocked.
Gogo has called me a dirty word that means my mother does dirty things.
I am angry too. Bitterness rises inside my mouth, and my hands are cold, my knees tremble, my chest is tight, but my fear is beginning to harden. I did nothing to him and yet he threw away my book and now he has abused my mother. I must say what I must say. I must spit out this bitter taste.
“You unruly little bully,” I say to Gogo. But he isn’t, not really, not little. He’s much taller than me, and he has muscles on his calves, his chest, his arms — the veins in his arms are like the ones in my father’s, it seems to me. Gogo looks exactly like I want to be someday: strong.
But right now, for the first time in my life, I’m ready to fight someone who isn’t Boma — all because of a book. I will be beaten, disgraced, and I know it, Gogo knows I know it, the whole class knows it, they are chanting, cheering me on, goading Gogo, and he lets out a kung-fu howl and charges at me. O Mama! But my book, my mother — I can’t run. I hold my ground until my teeth chatter, until I can almost feel his breath on me, and then my instincts revolt. I leap out his path and raise my hands to shield my face, but nothing, no blows, only a crash of glass and a child’s wail, and when I look up I see Gogo squirming in pain on the sand outside. He has run himself into the window and through the louver glasses. I feel a rush of fear, and then relief, a deep satisfaction.
The bad boy has lost.
My faith in the world’s order is now restored.
I’m ready to go back to reading Roots.
And so I climb out the window and pick up my book, shake off the glass, and go back in to meet the cheers of my classmates, boys and girls, who gather around and pat my back, stare at me with admiration. My head swells with pride.
Behind me, I can still hear Gogo crying.
On a quiet Port Harcourt afternoon, I’m rereading Lorna Doone for the seventh time when I hear a shout. It is Boma. I’m in our bedroom in my grandmother’s house, and there are adults outside so I don’t get out of bed, I don’t interrupt my reading, I hope Boma is fine. My mother is away in Ibadan studying for her university degree. I haven’t seen or heard from my father since he and my mother fought the last time in Benin City. Boma and my books are all that’s left of the home I’ve always known.
I’m 12 years old and I want to be an aeronautical engineer when I grow up.
Then the bedroom door flies open and Boma skips in with a two large shopping bags clutched in his hands. “Toys!” he cries excitedly. “The robot’s mine!” He dumps the bags on the floor, drops down beside them, upends one and spills out the toys. There’s only one father in the whole wide world who would buy so many toys. I tumble off the bed.
In the second bag there are books — a box set of The Hardy Boys, Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi,