Message in a Bottle
First Line Friday: Non-Fiction Edition




Previous installments of First Line Friday have been dominated by fiction, which probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Non-fiction writers tend to be concerned with having a sound basis for their arguments rather than worrying about the sound of their sentences. But many in the reality-based community marshal their facts in a stylish and memorable way, so I thought it was time to give some of them their due.

Memoirs generate a fair number of great opening lines, and one of the best is from a real master, Vladimir Nabokov. His Speak, Memory is considered a monument of the form, and its beginning lives up to the billing: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Portentous, isn’t it? He’s going to talk about his own life, but first he has to sum up our timeless existential condition.

Augusten Burroughs might not be so high-minded, but his opener for Running with Scissors is at least as catchy: “My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick.” Where Nabokov was universal, Burroughs is specific; the perspective of a child and the era in which he lives are immediately apparent. 

Speaking of specificity, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face starts with a literal bang: “KER-POW! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.” That’s so on-target it almost hurts. 

There’s some marvelous scene-setting at the beginning of another memoir that was written by a young man who went on to have a pretty significant career outside of literature. It starts off almost like a hard-boiled mystery:

A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-Fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-covered walkups that cast a heavy shadow for most of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.

That’s Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. 

Writing about yourself seems to make arresting introductions easier, but biographers, science writers, historians, and other non-fiction authors have managed the trick:

  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”
  •  Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”
  • Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind: “Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredrome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag.”
  • John Hersey’s Hiroshima: “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
  • Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We were somewhere outside of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

Not sure what non-fiction category to put that last one in, or even that it isn’t really fiction underneath, but that’s a good segue. You didn’t think I’d let you go without peppering you with some eyeball-grabbing openers from novels, did you? Let’s kick off this section with a few titans from the middle of the last century.

Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, could write circuitous sentences with the best of them, but he could be concise when he wanted to be, as he was when he began Herzog: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” The Adventures of Augie March is more characteristically prolix and swaggering: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

Philip Roth is still with us and may match Bellow’s Nobel yet. His tribute to onanism, Portnoy’s Complaint, was shocking in its time and remains influential today: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” Augusten Burroughs may have had that line echoing in his head when he picked up his pen, in fact—see above. Roth hasn’t softened with age, either. His recent Sabbath’s Theater raises eyebrows right away: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” You won’t see lofty vocabulary crash into the gutter any quicker than that. He transitions from elevated diction into earthy Anglo-Saxon without an intervening word.

J.D. Salinger, that shrinking violet, would never dare be so explicit, but he’s quotable nonetheless. Franny and Zooey commences as follows: “Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone hoped it would stay for the big weekend—the weekend of the Yale game.” 

Going back even further, we have Isak Dinesen’s atmospheric Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” The location is doing a lot of work for her there, of course. Probably wouldn’t have achieved the same romance if she’d said, “I had a farm in Iowa.” 

Contemporary author Joshua Ferris challenged himself with an even less romantic setting than that—a cubicle farm in a corporate office. The dehumanizing nature of the work he comedically describes is comprised by the narrative voice he uses. Instead of featuring a single protagonist in his And Then We Came to the End, he gives us the collective experience of the employees: “We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.”

Science fiction has its share of tasty hors d’oeuvres, too. A sampler plate:

  • Octavia Butler’s Kindred: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.”
  • J.G. Ballard’s High Rise: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
  • Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide: “The bureaucrat fell from the sky.”
  • James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah: “The irreducible strangeness of the universe was first made manifest to Anthony Van Horne on his fiftieth birthday, when a despondent angel named Raphael, a being with luminous white wings and a halo that blinked on and off like a neon quoit, appeared and told him of the days to come.”

If that angel is an avid reader, he’ll already know what’s in store, but the rest of you will have to wait until the next time First Line Friday rolls around.


New Nobel Laureate

The latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday in Stockholm, and poet Tomas Tranströmer is the lucky fella (it’s almost always a fella, as only 12 of the 108 prize-takers have been women). Hey, you’re saying, isn’t he Swedish? The fix was in! Well, it has been almost forty years since the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel to one of their own, so I guess you could say they were due. The best way to see if they were right would be to read his poetry, of course, and the best book to pick imageis probably The Great Enigma: New Collected Poems. As is inevitable in these cases, copies of his work have immediately disappeared from bookstore shelves and warehouses, so it’ll be a little while before this one comes back into stock. In the meanwhile, we at least have news accounts to suggest he’s an interesting figure. According to the Guardian, “[h]e suffered a stroke in 1990 which affected his ability to talk, but has continued to write …  At a recent appearance in London, his words were read by others, while the poet, who is a keen amateur musician, contributed by playing pieces specially composed for him to play on the piano with only his left hand.”

I make a prediction every year about who I think is going to get the award, but I haven’t been right yet. One thing that makes the winners so hard to predict is that there are so many credible nominees. Even restricting the options to writers from the US, we have Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, all of whom have had their names bandied about as serious candidates. I’m not sure it’s possible to bandy anything seriously, but you know what I mean. North of the border there’s a pair of big-leaguers, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, and we haven’t begun to touch on the many dozens of authors outside North America who usually form the group from which the winners get tapped. A whole world of authors exists who deserve attention, and at the rate of one Nobel laureate a year, there isn’t time to give them all proper credit.

I’ve been trying to drop hints to the Swedish Academy for a long time about who should get that credit next, but so far they haven’t been listening. If you know anyone in Scandinavia, pass this link along—it couldn’t hurt.

imageMy first dark horse in the race is Ismail Kadare from Albania. Much of his work was produced while that country was controlled by the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, so his novels are often set in the distant past. As such, they discuss various forms of political oppression in the only way they can, allegorically rather than directly. The Three-Arched Bridge is set in the 14th century on the eve of an Ottoman invasion, The Pyramid describes the vast (and unnecessary) construction project launched by the Pharaoh Cheops, The Palace of Dreams takes place in a surreal 19th-century bureaucracy where even sleep is no refuge from the watchful eye of the government, and so on. The restrictions under which Kadare labored served to deepen his writing, forcing him to make his books function on at least two levels. As historical fiction, they’re vibrant and realistic pictures of fascinating times and places, and as covert commentary, they resonate even more powerfully. Born in 1936 with nearly fifty novels behind him, he’s exactly the kind of late-career author the Nobel usually honors. 

imageSomeone in the running who may need to get a few more miles under his belt is Javier Marías (b. 1951). He spent a substantial amount of time in the US growing up and has translated many American writers into Spanish, but has also found the time to write
fourteen novels of his own. He started early, publishing his first book before he was twenty, and is now smack-dab in his prime, probably the most respected literary name in Spain. One of his most characteristic and accessible novels is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, about a man who embarks on an affair with a married woman only to have her die in his arms on their first night together. He spends the rest of book trying to balance his feelings of responsibility against a desire to keep from being exposed, with sometimes comic and sometimes intense results. Marías recently completed what may be his most significant work, the three-part novel Your Face Tomorrow. There’s an enormous amount that goes on between its covers, but imagining James Bond if Proust had created him will give you the idea. In the barest description of the plot, the narrator, a Spaniard living in England, is recruited into a hyper-secret intelligence organization, falls for a colleague, and eventually finds himself in over his head, but that hardly does the book justice. Threads go back to British military snafus in World War II and betrayals during the Spanish Civil War; the meanings of words shift as they’re translated fromimage language to language; the psychology of marriage and estrangement is examined; and the philosophy of violence is investigated from all angles. It’s kind of an exploded diagram of a spy novel where every action actually has a thought behind it, part of an entire stream of consciousness. You won’t tear through it in a weekend, but if you have a season to spend with it, you’ll be well rewarded. 

These two aren’t the only worthies who may someday wear the crown (note to self: check to see if there’s an actual laurel wreath involved) but I’ll save them for another day. Remember, if you hear either of these author names pronounced on the radio in a Swedish accent in years to come, you heard them here first.


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