I’m pickier about what I read for pleasure these days. Never used to start and then abandon a novel or collection of stories. Always felt an obligation to read on. Not anymore.
So the first page, paragraph, even sentence of a book assumes more importance for me, as I cast about for something that will suit my mood and hold my interest.
What makes an opening sentence good? Dunno exactly. In this piece by Joe Fassler for The Atlantic, Stephen King says it’s supposed to “establish a sense of voice.”
Fassler asked several writers to name their favorite opening sentence. I thought this one was pretty good, for its type: “When the guy with asthma finally came in from the fire escape, Parker rabbit-punched him and took his gun away.” That’s from Richard Stark, The Mourner.
You may have your own favorite. I remember being intrigued by the first sentence in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967; trans. Gregory Rabassa): “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Firing squad? To discover ice? Intriguing.
Here are the opening sentences of works of fiction recognized by the 2014 National Book Awards committee. Which do you like best? And why?
Phil Klay, Redeployment:
We shot dogs.
Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See:
At dusk they pour from the sky.
Rabih Almaddine, An Unnecessary Woman:
You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of wine didn’t help my concentration.
Emily Saint John Mandel, Station Eleven:
The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.
Marilynne Robinson, Lila:
The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.
Molly Antopol, The UnAmericans:
No one wants to listen to a man lament his solitary nights — myself included.
John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van:
My father used to carry me down the hall to my room after I came home from the hospital.
Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories:
Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ecto-plasmic dungarees.
Richard Powers, Orfeo:
An overture, then: Lights blaze from an American Craftsman home in a demure neighborhood, late on a spring evening, in the tenth year of the altered world.
Jane Smiley, Some Luck:
Walter Langdon hadn’t walked out to check the fence along the creek for a couple of months — now that the cows were up by the barn for easier milking in the winter, he’d been putting off fence-mending — so he hadn’t seen the pair of owls nesting in the big elm.
I’m partial to Marilynne Robinson’s opening to Lila. Doesn’t try too hard, doesn’t draw attention away from the story to the writing itself, unpretentious and yet the reader learns so much. And wants to know more. Who is this child? Why is she on the stoop? Who left her there? What will happen to her? For some reason, I also like the phrase “just there” — she was “just there,” as if the person telling me this story is pointing in the direction of the house.
Still, I suppose it’s hard to pass up “ecto-plasmic dungarees.”