"Now, what I want is, Facts." Well, you’re not going to get them. Not here, not today. Instead we’re offering fiction, and plenty of it. The first lines of it, anyway. Yes, it’s another episode of First Line Friday, in which we share some of the best pick-up lines in literature. The one that opens this paragraph is by Charles Dickens, by the way, spoken by the serious-minded and aptly named character Thomas Gradgrind.
Then there’s this, from Pete Dexter’s novel Spooner:
Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Millidgeville, Georgia, in a makeshift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Woods, across the street from and approximately in the crosshairs of a cluster of Confederate artillery pieces guarding the dog-spotted front lawn of the Greene Street Sons of the Confederacy Retirement Home.
A sentence full of facts, and yet it has an impudent tone that I don’t think Sir Gradgrind would approve. “Dog-spotted” is one very vivid detail that would undoubtedly elicit the same comment he makes on page two of Hard Times: “We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here.”
Gradgrind might be more amenable to (although confused by) The Space Child’s Mother Goose by Frederick Winsor. It educates kids about the complexities of physics and astronomy in verse, and it starts like this:
Probable-Possible, my black hen,
She lays eggs in the Relative When.
She doesn’t lay eggs in the Positive Now
Because she’s unable to Postulate how.
But let’s stop worrying about Gradgrind’s opinions and just savor some excellent beginnings, Big Bangs that birth a storyteller’s universe.
- Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
- J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.”
- Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
- Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed, executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”
- Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea: “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”
- Gregory Roberts’ Shantaram: “It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
- John Scalzi’s The Android’s Dream: “Dirk Moeller didn’t know if he could fart his way into a diplomatic incident. But he was ready to find out.”
- Toni Morrison’s Beloved: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
- Iain Banks’ The Crow Road: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
That seems a pretty good mix of the silly and the sublime. And speaking of the sublime, I have to mention John Crowley’s Aegypt series. It defies easy summary, but all of the four linked novels it comprises draw connections between antique myth and contemporary life. The first book, The Solitudes, starts with a beautiful image of a Renaissance mage peering into another realm: “There were angels in the glass, two four six many of them, each one shuffling into his place in line like an alderman at the Lord Mayor’s show.” We see this as mere superstition, and presume that we better understand reality now, but the series as a whole posits otherwise.
Crowley suggests that history goes through phases, and that the nature of the universe fundamentally alters with each shift. Science rules our day, but in the 16th Century, alchemy and magic functioned perfectly well. Or more concisely, as he begins a later volume in the series, Love and Sleep: “Once, the world was not as it has since become.” Which means, of course, that it’s liable to change again without notice, an inventive premise that plays out wonderfully throughout Aegypt.
Some novels feature multiple worlds, and some feature multiple first lines. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, for example, was first printed with a prologue that opens as memorably as the story itself. Respectively, those sentences are:
- "Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living."
- "The drought had lasted now for ten million years, and the reign of the terrible lizards had long since ended."
William Goldman’s The Princess Bride is another such book. Many readers have been fooled by the first chapter, which says that what follows is a remembered abridgement of a story Goldman’s father read to him when he was a child, one that he’s never been able to find again. According to bookseller legend, customers still sometimes ask for the “real” Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern, the one that’s better than Goldman’s version. It’s never happened to me, but I like to believe that it has to someone. The start of the story and the “start” of the story:
- "This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it."
- "The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."
Both great lines.
I’ll conclude with a final opening, this time from Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony. It’s an epic of sorts, and she begins with her own poetic creation myth:
is sitting in her room
and whatever she thinks about
Silko’s describing herself there, obviously. She’s modest, though, and doesn’t mention how much hard work goes along with the thinking. Sentences this arresting require as much effort as they do inspiration.