Woman No. 17: A Novel

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Fourteen First and Last Sentence Novels

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Everybody’s aesthetic is set by the time you’re eight years old. At its deepest level, the most intrinsic and elemental aspects of the self—within the basement of your soul—the stories you were told, the songs you heard, the pictures you looked at that are pressed into the service of constructing a person. My own aesthetic owes everything to the much beloved and much missed Pinocchio’s Bookstore for children, run by Marilyn Hollinshead from 1985 to 2002, opening the year after I was born and closing the year that I moved away for college. Pinocchio’s was located on Aiken at the terminus of narrow and dense shop-lined Walnut Street in the bougie Pittsburgh neighborhood of wood-paneled Victorians and brick Tudors known as Shadyside, uncharacteristically flat of terrain and gridded of street in the hilly city. Unassuming, the street-level entrance to the bookstore was at the end of a line of shops, the inventory only accessible through a staircase from the front door to the dimly lit treasures beneath, the entrance advertised with a vaguely unsettling drawing of the titular Italian puppet himself, all oak plank and joist with his nose not yet to prodigious growth. The subterranean locale meant that your descent smelled slightly of earth and rain, and the overall effect of entering the surprisingly large store was that you’d happened upon a magical cave that was filled top-to-bottom with books. Specializing in the gauntlet of children’s literature from board-books for babies all the way to Young Adult novels for those in high school, and Pinocchio’s made true for me Francis Spufford’s beautiful recollection in The Child That Books Built about “readings that acted like transformations… when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed.”


Spending an hour on a rainy Saturday afternoon, in the dim lighting of Pinocchio’s with its burgundy wall paper and its toy pit, it’s racks of stuffed toy turtles and hedgehogs, its rows of paperbacks, and I came across many of Spufford’s transformations. There was Klutz Publishing’s Earthsearch: A Kid’s Geography Museum in a Book by John Cassidy, which had an aluminum cover and a pith-helmeted explorer on the front; inside there was a bag of rice and an unmarked, stiff brown page that was supposedly a sheet of Bulgarian toilet paper. From that book I acquired a love of the odd and idiosyncratic. Then there’s the classic World of the Unknown: Ghosts from Usborne Books, which terrified younger members of Generation X and older millennials, its violet cover showing a picture of an ethereal, monkish specter, while inside there were maps of hauntings in isolated Cotswold villages and accounts of a Manx poltergeist named Giff who took the form of a talking mongoose. That title is where my sense of the macabre comes from, which was strengthened when I discovered the gothic novels of the great John Bellairs, such as The House with a Clock in Its Walls with its classic cover by Edward Gorey. Finally, there was an anthology of Shakespeare’s plays retold for children, as I recall a green-covered book illustrated with vines and roses, and haunting drawings of the witches from Macbeth and whimsical ones of Bottom from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, but I can’t remember the title, and I may have imagined it (though if I haven’t, please let me know). If in adulthood my aesthetic tends towards the eccentric, the twee, the idiosyncratic, an attraction toward fairy gardens and Medieval stone labyrinths covered in ivy, toward chill rain and overcast skies while listening to Arvo Pärt, then it’s because of Pinocchio’s. A title in that regard which stands out in my mind—a “seed crystal” as Spufford would call it—is the uncanny and beautiful picture book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris van Allsburg.

Far more famous for the slightly menacing quirkiness of Jumanji or The Polar Express, and The Mysteries of Harris Burdick is the Caldicott Medal winner’s experimental title. Van Allsburg prefaces his book with a frame tale, recounting how a friend of his named Peter Wenders who worked as an editor had once met with a children’s book author named Harris Burdick. At their meeting, Burdick presented Wenders with 14 images from 14 separate books, each picture including only the title of the volume which it was from, and the first line. Burdick promises that if Wenders is willing to issue a contract for all the titles, the author will return with the books in their entirety. The next day, Burdick misses their scheduled meeting. Wenders tries contacting him to no avail. He spends years attempting to discover Burdick’s identity, but he is seemingly untraceable to both Wenders and van Allsburg. Consequently, van Allsburg assures us, he has reprinted the fragments in the hopes that Burdick may reveal himself. I was instantly struck. At the age of seven, when I first flipped through The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, I didn’t understand that the preface was a conceit—I believed that the strange illustrator was real. And I was obsessed by the images and their captions, for they are rendered in an eerie chiaroscuro making them appear nothing so much like Renaissance engravings, like black and white mezzotint. One picture from a book supposedly entitled A Strange Day in July shows a girl and a boy, about my age at the time, by a sun dappled body of water skipping stones. The caption reads “He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back.” Another with the title The Harp had the first line of “So it’s true he thought, it’s really true,” showing a harp on a rock overlooking a bubbling, wooded stream with light filtering through the branches overhead, a small figure with a walking stick standing opposing. Mr. Linden’s Library depicted a girl who’d fallen asleep on a bed with crisp, white sheets, a volume opened in front of her with the tendrils of ivy growing out from it, the sentence reading “He had warned her about the book. Now it was too late.” Seed crystals.

Van Allsburg writes that Burdick’s “disappearance is not the only mystery he left behind. What were the stories that went with these drawings?” Seven-year-old-me was enraptured. Thirty-seven-year-old-me is still enraptured. My love of fragmentation, aphorism, mystery—all of it partially can be traced back to the van Allsburg book. If anyone is looking for a present, send me a framed copy of the 14 pictures in The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. Over the last 30 years, I’ve been fascinated by incomplete books, missing stories, lost volumes. The traces of literature that might have been is an obsession of mine. I’m often more moved by what the mind is able to imagine as concerns a largely absent book than I am by the real book right in front of me. Jorge Luis Borges, a fan of writing reviews of fake books (the subject of my own collection The Anthology of Babel) noted in the introduction to his Labyrinths that “To write vast books is a laborious nonsense, much better is to offer a summary as if those books actually existed.” I’d go even a step further—better to write the barest traces of a novel, and to let the perfected form exist within the mind of your reader. That was the aspiration I had when I first conceived of something I call “First and Last Sentence Novels.” The entire idea behind this form was that rather than writing an entire novel, the author would simply give readers the first and last sentence and the title of a hypothetical novel, an imaginary book. No other information is imparted, the only way for a reader to know anything about characters, plot, even genre, can only be implied by the clues that are the title, the first, and the last sentence. Perhaps it’s a bit pompous, but I think of this as a new literary form, a type of novelistic prose poem, a hybrid, a chimera, whose main currency is delight, wonder, and mystery. Is that pompous? I don’t care. The idea behind First and Last Sentence Novels is cool.

Several years ago, long before I began to write professionally, and I set up a little WordPress site, long-since expired, that was entitled First and Last Sentence Magazine, it’s logo a Medieval engraving of a monk dutifully working in a scriptorium. I posted a CFP on social media with a Gmail account for people to respond to me, and as I recall I received a few dozen responses with examples from folks, some of them pretty good. Still, the whole operation was only me, I never got many hits, and the whole project just sort of died, as those things do. Latter on I thought that maybe I’d just do my own collection of a few hundred First and Last Sentence Novels. Maybe I still will one day. But a benefit of working at The Millions is that I often get to speak with some of my favorite writers, people whose work I read long before I was ever on the masthead. Brilliant, engaging, thoughtful, poignant, hilarious, and sometimes mysterious writers. So, I decided that I’d take the opportunity to resurrect this project, and query several women and men who wrote some of my favorite books that I read over the last few years and see if they’d be willing to contribute their own entries into the what I hope will be the growing canon of First and Last Sentence Novels. If I’m being totally honest, I contacted these authors because I’m greedy and I wanted to read more of their writing; I contacted them because I wanted to read their novels before you did. By the constraints of the form, I wanted to see how the brilliance of these women and men played out across two sentences that because they said almost nothing were forced to have to say everything. Now, with a bit of bragging, I’d like to present 14 new novels by some of the United States and Great Britain’s most talented authors (plus my own, because I can, even though I don’t deserve to be here). These are authors who have been published by The New Yorker and The Paris Review, McSweeney’s and Harper’s, who have taught and attended MFA programs at New York University and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and been finalists and winners for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In their generous contributions to this project there is tragedy and redemption, terror and humor, introspection and elation, all in two sentences and a title. Most of all there is mystery. I hope that you find your own seed crystals here, your own transformations and that you’re inspired to write your own contributions.   

The Continental Marriage by Bethany Ball

First
Sentence – Her husband first told Irene he was cheating on her in a movie
theater waiting for the previews to begin.

Last Sentence – The movie lights dimmed and Sherman leaned over to Irene and
said, “Mistress light. That’s you. You are my Mistress light”

The Forty Story War by Matt Bell

First
Sentence – Later, after Brock was accused of his war crime but before his war,
he stood newly arrived in the vast processing lobby of the as-yet-unshelled
tower and reflected how he would once again have to learn to live without fresh
air, or else absentmindedly wander back outside to die.

Last Sentence
– Surprised, Brock fell, as from a great height, into his first general
sensation of love. 

Bird by Ellie Eaton

First Sentence –  There was a time in my life when I thought that everything I touched—career, relationships, friends, ambitions—went up in smoke; then, one day, it finally does.

Last Sentence – The roof sinks slowly in
on itself, a half-baked cake, and everything burns.

The Mess by Edan Lepucki

First
Sentence – The year my lover’s wife died was also the year my mother
domesticated a coyote, and I, realizing I’d never have a child, bought a Tesla.

Last Sentence
– “Does this hurt?” I asked.

The Treeline by Isle McElroy

First
Sentence – Last summer the snow didn’t melt.

Last Sentence
– “Is that what you think this is for?”

Marfa by Emily Nemens

First Sentence –  He saw the place first at seventeen, basic
training during the high heat of summer, the temperatures such that the
best—the only—relief he could find was the cement floor of the artillery shed,
the rare occasions he was alone long enough to put belly to cement (shirt
unbuttoned, loose from its belted tuck), cheek to floor, palms spread…it was
about surface area, about stillness, about imagining coolness, as much as
feeling it.

Last Sentence – Now, he’d not be able
to hear the explosion, the whoosh of flame and crumple of steel retracting, the
roof melting in on itself, falling as molten bricks—now, he’d only be able to
feel the change of pressure as oxygen rushed to the billowing action, he’d only
be able to sense the distant heat against his skin. 

The Bastard Child by Deesha PhilyawFirst Sentence – Before the highway split their mecca, the residents of Hollybrook took pride in their lawns, their cars, and their children’s light-bright complexions.

Last Sentence
– It was her mouth, he said, her absolutely sinful mouth, that made him come
back.

Esoterica by Kathleen Rooney

First
Sentence – Nobody likes to receive a chain letter–nobody, that is, except
Hannah V—–.

Last Sentence
– The future descends, a flock of black swans.

Certain of My Books by Martin Seay

First Sentence – He found it bothersome—and odd to
see—innkeeping with his stuffy nose.

Second Sentence – He founded both, or some: an odyssey in
keeping with this stuff he knows.

Columbus Circle by Ed Simon

First Sentence – Tzipi had always teased Samuel that his
was a superstition, if a sweet one, that when crossing a busy street he always
took care to first visualize her, his wife, and then G-d, in that order, so that
should a speeding car cut him down in between those thoughts he’d at least have
had time to consider the face of the most important thing in his life.

Last Sentence – And he never regrated the choices which
he’d made, no, never, never, no, never at all.

Heart of Stone by Rufi Thorpe

First Sentence – There were many artists who restored classical sculptures in the 17th century, but none as tacky or disinterested in historical accuracy as Theo’s friend, Nicolas, who, with his fluffy hair and expensive clothes, would inevitably stand way too close to you and say things like, “But that what makes it art!” when you would point out, as Theo often did, that Nicolas had put the head of a Venus onto the body of what was meant to be a common woman, creating nonsensical chimeras that catered too boldly to the tastes of Cardinal Borghese, a known pervert, who was, incidentally, Nicolas’s uncle, nepotism being the only sane explanation for how Nicolas had gotten into the business in the first place, or at least this was how Theo framed it to his wife at night in bed, describing to her in excruciating detail every annoying thing that Nicolas had done that day as though each one was a small splinter that telling her extracted from his inflamed skin.

Last Sentence – “This is unjust! Ask Nicolas! Go and
find him, he will save me! I know that Nicolas will save me!” Theo
shouted, looking frantically from man to man, his face contorted in such
outlandish terror that the effect was more comic than tragic, and those who
loaded Theo into the cart felt they were not so much loading a man, but a
thing, a doll of a man, an empty mask, and Nicolas, who was eating a most
satisfactory lunch of pheasant and pears, was not fetched or even notified, nor
did he hear Theo’s cries in the courtyard, or perhaps he did register them, but
as background noise, like a dog barking in the distance.

Operation Roth: A Novel by Daniel Torday

First Sentence –  “I learned about the other, other Philip Roth in January, 2021, a few years after the insurrection at the Capitol, when Roth’s cousin Apter telephoned me in Philadelphia to say that Israeli websites had reported that, though he’d been dead for years, he was in Jerusalem.”

Last Sentence – “Let Saul Bellow’s Jewish conscience be your guide.”

Styles for Special Occasions by Dawnie Walton

First
Sentence – Nobody else in the class was going to ask them, so the seven Black
girls of Briar Heights High made plans to go to the prom together.

Last Sentence
– If Shana had been there, they would have smiled and told her what she already
knew: how much the girl looked like her mother, with her face turned up to the
cool blue light. 

Life, A by Teddy Wayne

First
Sentence – So this, he thought, is what it feels like to die.

Last Sentence
– At a quarter to seven on a gray December morning, after a seventeen-hour
labor for which a cesarean was nearly employed, Franklin Waters came squalling
into the world.

About the Contributors

Bethany Ball was born in Detroit and currently lives in New York. She has been published in The Common, BOMB, New York magazine, The American Literary Review, the Detroit MetroTimes, Electrical Literature, Zyzyvva, and Literary Hub. Her novel What to Do About the Solomons was published in 2017 by Grove Atlantic. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize and was a runner up in the Jewish Book Council’s debut fiction prize. Her second novel, The Pessimists, was published by Grove Atlantic this past October.

Matt Bell is the author most recently of the novel Appleseed (a New York Times Notable Book)  and the craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, and revision. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

Ellie Eaton’s debut novel, The Divines, was named a most anticipated book by Harper’s Bazaar, CNN, Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, Electric Literature, Lit Hub, Shondaland, Alma, Stylist, iNews, The Millions, and New York Magazine. Her second novel will be published by William Morrow in 2024.

Edan Lepucki is the author of the novels California and Woman No. 17. Her latest fiction is the short story “People in Hell Want Ice Water,” available as an Audible Original.

Isle McElroy is the author of The Atmospherians, a New York Times Editors’ Choice. They currently live in New York. 

Emily Nemens is the author of The Cactus League, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and was named one of the best books of 2020 by NPR. She is working on her second novel and serves as the sports/senior editor for Stranger’s Guide.

Deesha Philyaw’s debut short story collection, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the 2020/2021 Story Prize, and the 2020 LA Times Book Prize: The Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novels Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Her poetry collection Where Are the Snows, winner of the X.J. Kennedy Prize, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in Fall of 2022. She teaches at DePaul.

Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief was published by Melville House in 2016.  Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing writer for Belt Magazine. He is the author of An Alternative History of Pittsburgh and Pandemonium: A Visual History of Demonology, among other books.

Rufi Thorpe is the author of three novels, most recently The Knockout Queen, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Daniel Torday is the author of the novels, The Last Flight of Poxl West and Boomer1. His third novel, The 12th Commandment, will be published in January 2023. Torday is a professor of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. 

Dawnie Walton is the author of the novel The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and named one of the best books of 2021 by The Washington Post, NPR, Esquire, and President Barack Obama. A former editor for Entertainment Weekly and Essence, she has written fiction and essays for Oxford American, Bon Appetit, and Lithub.

Teddy Wayne is the author of ApartmentLonerThe Love Song of Jonny Valentine, and Kapitoil. He is the winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award and an NEA Creative Writing Fellowship as well as a finalist for the Young Lions Fiction Award, the PEN/Bingham Prize, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. A former columnist for The New York Times and McSweeney’s and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, he has taught at Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the writer Kate Greathead, and their children.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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