My First Line Gets Schooled

I’ve been silent again for a little bit, though not because I’ve been hanging out and not working (I say this sadly, as we were supposed to be in warming up–poolside–at a Palm Springs conference this week, but there was just far too much work to be done to leave sunny Seattle).

It’s been a hectic week thus far, trying to get LAR 9 in the can (it should go without saying that I mean the filmic sort of can, not the restroom kind. Though if anyone wants to read LAR while in the can, I suppose I won’t judge). We’ve had a few bumps along the road to finishing this issue, but it’s going to be a very fine piece of literary fare. Some of my favorite pieces of all LAR time are going to appear in 9.

That said, I’ve been itching to get back to the novel. I’ve managed the better part of a chapter this week, but that’s largely to do with my writing partner’s protestations over my recent lack of production, and only at the expense of unpacking the rest of the boxes in our new place. But, to be fair, I have been revising a bit, and rearranging the structure of the story. In looking over my opening chapter–though it’s far too early to be obsessing over ideas like “oh, dear. What’s my agent going to say about this opening line?”–I’m already obsessing over that critical first sentence of the book’s architecture.

My current opening line (at least I have one of those. I’m currently without even a working title) sucks: “The sun warmed the ice crystals where light pushed through the trees and into the clearing.” And I’ve know since I’ve written it that it does, indeed, suck.

So when American Book Review published it’s “100 Best First Lines from Novels” this week, it came as a bit of an admonishment to do better, but also an inspiration. While I don’t agree that “Call Me Ishmael” from Melville’s Moby Dick is, in fact, the best opening line in Western literature, the editors did bring out some fabulous lines:

There’s the knowingly ironic opener from Samuel Becket in Murphy (Ranked #15): “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

The terse and interest-piquing statement that opens Toni Morrison’s Beloved (Ranked #26) “124 was spiteful.”

The gorgeous and lyrical line from Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God (Ranked #44):  “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

And the have-to-find-what-happens-next opening shots from Iain Banks (#49) in The Crow: “It was the day my grandmother exploded ” and from Carson McCullers, from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (#94): “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”

But clocking in at #66 is the opener from my favorite novel: Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. “To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” —Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)”

Okay, so it’s not necessarily wise to admit that your favorite novel is often confused with something like The Devil’s Bible (which I don’t recommend to your attention). I first learned that this wasn’t the most socially acceptable novel when I first read it on my light rail commutes in Portland, Oregon, and got some pretty scathing stares from my fellow early-morning workers. Never mind the fact that the book’s portrayal of The Prophet Muhammed would do most Protestant Christians proud (it did earn Rushdie a fatwa, after all), or the fact that Satan doesn’t exactly get a positive image in the book–people still seem to think you’re likely worshiping Satan by reading the a tome like that on a train.

But isn’t that a gorgeous opening? The religious and profane, the familiar and the strange, the action and the dialogue? I’m inspired to do better. It may be time to crack Rushdie’s novel open again. Though this time, I think I’ll do my reading in my office.

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