We will be looking at short excerpts of prose – in this case the opening paragraph of The Virgin Suicides by the brilliant Jeffrey Eugenides – to decipher how the motifs of great writing – life, love, loss, regret and the seemingly elusive quest for meaning, transcendence and redemption are communicated through a single paragraph.
Every compelling writer has mastered craft to a degree where we, as readers, are almost unaware of how we are being drawn in – line by line – into the author’s story. Every couple of weeks we will look at prose by great modern and postmodern authors (like Roth, Atwood, DeLillo, Palhniuk & others), popular fiction and memoir (Eat, Love, Pray will be flash reviewed soon), as well as genre pieces (Possibly Twilight and others) to understand what makes these authors’ craft so effective.
Because this is my first blog entry and because beginnings are so very hard (I struggled with this one!), to honor this occasion, I’d like to take a look at a beginning. But first, I want to give a word of general caution on beginnings.
First of all, it’s easy to obsess about beginnings, combing through those first sentences to get them just right long before you’ve written your manuscript. With those first words, you must raise questions for your reader, immerse them in the world you’ve created, and more than anything else, you want to get the momentum going so that the reader is led through the story. It’s a tall order and you can spend months trying to get it just right before you’ve even written your story. I’ve done it and it can be a fabulous way to feel as if you are writing while you are in fact wasting time. Resist that urge. It will hold you back from the story that wants to be told.
The second mistake we often make is to begin in ways we find extremely clever, but which in fact do more to confuse the reader than to inspire them. This would be your Finnegan’s Wake opening, where the reader enters with so many questions they can’t figure out where to turn their attention. This can be pulled off by someone of Joyce’s genius, but few of us are that gifted.
The antithesis to this is we often begin in tried and true ways “the alarm clock rang and Tim saw, from his crusted over eyes, the cascades of jet black hair that did not belong to Tracy, his overly perky, overly peroxided, blonde wife.” This is the alarm clock opening, and while it may work, it is a trope, so be wary of it.
My suggestion is to write a functional beginning, a sentence that begins ‘in the middle of the action” and then write your story and then rewrite the beginning to fit the actual fiction you produced. Trust me, you will feel much more inspired to get that beginning just right when you know what comes after it. When I finished my first novel I realized the first chapter was actually background story and cut it to begin the novel on the first page of my second chapter.
Let’s look at how one author pulls off a successful beginning by analyzing one of the most underrated, vibrant, works of fiction written in the last twenty years – The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. This book tells the story of a group of sisters who commit suicide, but of course it is far more than that – an elegy to the loss of innocence, a testament to the power of suburban oppression, a meditation on the nature of longing, and more. And this is all set up in the opening scene.
“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and the cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.”
The beauty of this opening is that the first sentence clearly communicates that we are in the middle of the ‘action’ while also placing the reader at the start of a new set of actions. The term “the last” Lisbon daughter and the phrase “took her turn at suicide” both imply that others have come before her. The narrator/s tells us that the trouble (but what trouble?) began thirteen months earlier. We enter the story with questions. How many Lisbon girls were there? Why did they all attempt to commit suicide? What happened thirteen months ago? And how successful is Mary? The others? We are awash with questions – however we are not adrift in the world.
This is an important craft point to emphasize. Unless you’re Becket dabbling in his later fictions, you don’t want to lose the reader. So how do you raise questions and not lose the reader? Eugenides uses solid, descriptive language to anchor us in place. We have a “knife drawer” rather than the much more nebulous “knives”, a “gas oven”, a “beam” in the basement and a “fat” paramedic who “as usual” moved too slowly. And then we have the bushes, “monstrous and erupting.” The physical world grounds the reader in an actual physical space, each object defined in most cases by one very clear adjective (not two or three, but one).
The author also gives us a specific time frame for the start of the action – thirteen months prior. This grounding lets the questions about the nature of the action in the story sit and waits because the reader is already titillated and now is satisfied (partially) with the visual world unfolding before him or her. In short, the reader is given two different starts – one a set of questions about the suicides, and two– the suburban world of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, circa the 1970s. And this is what reading is – an act of seeking information so we can assemble a coherent meaning as well as an act of watching a world we’ve never seen in all it’s urgency, poignancy and heart-break.
Also notice how Eugenides refuses to hide the major action of the story – the suicides. He opens with them, thereby transferring the mystery (i.e. what’s happening) from that physical act to questions about why? Who is telling us this? What are the results of the suicide attempts? And why all these sisters? The bigger issues hover out there while the physical setting and action of the story comes to the fore. This is one technique, but a very important one, for keeping the reader engaged from the very first paragraph.