First Sentences, First Impressions

Ishmael

We’ve all been told of the importance of first impressions, which are particularly crucial when trying to publish a piece of fiction. Stephen Corey, former editor of the Georgia Review, once told me that if a story didn’t grab him by sentence three he chunked it into the rejection pile. He said he received approximately 300 manuscripts a month, which meant that to get a story into that quarterly publication, you were going against 1200 other combatants.

I suspect with novels the pressure isn’t quite as intense; nevertheless, certainly a rollicking good first sentence has to be advantageous.

Take Jay McInerney’s first from Bright Lights, Big City, a sentence that falls beneath a chapter entitled “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are”

 You’re not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time in the morning.

It certainly hooked me, as I found myself all-coked-up in “either the Heartbreak or Lizard Lounge” – my second person narrator wasn’t sure which – “talking to a girl with a shaved head.”

Of course, some writers don’t opt for the old in medias res commencement but take us way back in time, as Thomas Sterne does with Tristan Shandy’s contemplatiion of the act of his procreation:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in  duty both equally bound to it, had duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;— and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost;—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and  proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded that I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that in which the reader is likely to see me.

Others attempt to establish mood:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Or to encapsulate theme like this:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a good wife.

Or this:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Nor does the quality of first sentence, I might add, signify the over all quality of the work as a whole.  Certainly Joyce’s first sentence of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there wasa moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. . . .” is more arresting than the first sentence of Ulysses –  “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” – but few would rank Portrait over Ulysses in overall quality.  And certainly, George Eliot’s first sentence of Middlemarch – “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” – though interesting, doesn’t even begin to signal the grandeur that is to follow.

Well, you wonder, what is the greatest of all first sentences written in English?  “Call me Ishmael?”  Or “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes?”

No, by my reckoning, the greatest first sentence of any novel anywhere came from the typewriter of Nabokov.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

After reading that, would not be compelled to read on?

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

The Kinks’ Everybody’s in Show-Biz Revisited

Essentially, British pop music falls between two poles of influence, the music hall tunes of the 19th and early 20th Centuries and the R&B co-opted by the Brit bands of the ’60’s (with the Beatles more or less representing the former and the Stones the latter).

Certainly, songs like “Honey Pie” from the Beatle’s White Album owe more to Harry Dacre’s “Daisy Bell” than they do to any Chuck Berry tune.

Unknown-1

One British band who in its later years owed much to the music hall tradition is the Kinks. Although they began as perhaps the very first hard rockers in history with singles like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” by ’72 front man Ray Davies had abandoned three chord anthems and looked back to the golden ages of music hall and Hollywood for his inspiration.

The double album Everybody’s in Show Biz marks this transition.  The first record consists of studio recordings that confront life on the road or hearken back to the nostalgia of Mickey Rooney and George Sanders, and the second features songs from a two-night Carnegie Hall concert.  Most of the tunes from the concert come from the Kinks’s previous album Muswell Hillbillies, which deals with the frustrations of 20th Century life and presages Davies’ forthcoming nostalgic bent..  The tune “Skin and Bone” that I’ve illustrated through the short film below offers an example of this transition from boogie woogie to Vaudeville:

 

The Lighter Side of the Son of Sam

Back in the summer of ’77 when we hepcats were making that awkward transition from lobbing Molotov cocktails to burning our way across the dance floors of disco, David Berkowitz – aka the Son of Sam – killed 6 people and wounded several others. As far as serial killing goes, this paltry total can’t compare to the number of victims dispatched by Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, or South Carolina’s own Peewee Gaskins; however, Berkowitz PRed his way to the top of the nation’s serial killing charts by leaving a series of cryptic notes like this ditty:

Note from Son of Sam Killer David Berkowitz

What narcissistic nonsense.  Of course, alley cats are going to mate and sparrows sing – if the feline and avian survivors of Chernobyl don’t let a cataclysmic environmental disaster affect their reproductive compulsions, certainly a couple of gunshots ringing out in a Brooklyn night ain’t going to affect their behavior.*

Of course, the media didn’t pay as much attention to Peewee as they did to David.**   Peewee was no poet, and if he had been, his poems would have sounded something like this:

Whose corpse this is I ought to know

cause I’m the one what kilt it so.

I hope nobody come ‘round here

to watch me in the lake it throw.


*This from National Geographic’s website: On the other hand, Mousseau admits that some birds have thrived [at Chernobyl]: drab, non-migratory birds seem to be doing very well, “possibly because they have no competitors,” he said. These birds don’t use up their carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants, to create colorful plumage, and they don’t need to spend extra energy on long migrations, so their immune systems may be stronger, Mousseau theorized.

** How many serial killers are you on a first name basis with?

image

At any rate, during the Son of Sam’s spree, while bartending at the Golden Spur, I came up with what I thought was a brilliant idea: to form a comedy terrorist group called “The Lighter Side of the Son of Sam.” These slapstick desperadoes would attack obnoxious celebrities like Tom Snyder of the Tomorrow Show and make him perform demeaning acts on camera, stuff like, you know, like making out with one of Liberace’s exes while David Jones of the Monkees sang “Day Dream Believer” at gunpoint. Nobody would get seriously hurt, and the madcap band of practical jokers would always somehow get away to punk some other obnoxito in the unforeseeable future.

This idea returned to me after I watched the second episode of the Bravo reality show Southern Charm. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some latter day version of the Lighter Side of the Son of Sam could infiltrate the filming and wreck some boomerang karma on the vapidiots appearing on the show? Let’s see. How to punish Shep? I got it! How about updating Sartre with a little No Exit action by locking up Shep, Rosie McDonnell, and Dennis Rodman in a Motel 6 room for forty days and forty nights? [cue demonic laughter]

rosie, shep, and Dennis

Rosie and Dennis could entertain Shep by performing a two man/woman show of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf or entertain him by wrestling for the remote that operates a TV that gets only the Lifetime Network and the Shopping Channel.

Just some good old fashioned retributive fun brought to you by that band of lovable losers, the Lighter Side of the Son of Sam!

Ides of March Madness

prespaul

Actor and Def Poet Paul Edward O’Brien

As I was polishing the prose of yesterday’s post into a blinding sheen, I received an email from my former student and current friend, the actor and poet Paul O’Brien, with a link to this amusing layout of Shakespeare’s plays bracketed for an NCAA-like tournament to determine the very best of the best.

Shakespeare_MarchMadness_OneSheet-(3)

Shakespeare’s March Madness

Accompanying the link was Paul’s commentary on the above bracketing, a tour de force that echoes the idioms of sports commentators.  I asked Paul if he would be so kind as to drive over to Hoodoo studios here on Folly Island and record it for you, which, obviously, he did, because – presto – here it is!

Make sure you hit the grey arrow below so you can hear Paul’s performance as you read along.

O brother, we few, we happy few! Madness? I’ll say, mad as the sea and wind when both contend which is the mightier! Whose picks are these? Marlowe? Earl of Oxford? Some amateur wannabe? Where to begin? Okay, first in the Tragedy Region: there is no way that two powerhouse top seeds like Hamlet and Lear meet in the first round! No way. That really would be a tragedy. They don’t square off until the quarters. Hamlet would have to get by Othello, which would be tough, but that tenacious squad of Danes and their unselfish style of mutual murder and mayhem would carry the day for Elsinore. Yeah, Iago’s got mad skills, but let’s face it, he still hasn’t learned how to be a team player. MacB is bloody good, wicked good, but lacks solid ball control–he just doesn’t know when to stop sometimes, and Lear advances especially if Kent keeps up the tight defense. The quarter final match up between Hamlet and Lear would be close, but I’ll take Hamlet by a couplet at the buzzer. On to the History regionals. You want history, hey, Henry V–you’re history! You’re all pomp and circumstance and bluster in the middle, and you put on a good show, but you run out of steam in the fourth quarter, while your younger self has still got moves and knows how to take control and change the game at the right moment. Yea, sure, Falstaff doesn’t always come ready to play, but hey, you got Hotspur coming off the bench. Gimme a break! Henry IV wins and then beats the Romans, who really just don’t have their act together enough to go too deep in this tourney. As for Comedy, here’s some comedy: Twelfth Night over The Tempest. Are you crazy? Who’s gonna stop Prospero when he’s in the zone? Viola? The Duke? Malvolio? Malvolio?? Oberon and Titania are too much for Benedick and Beatrice bickering in the backcourt, but it doesn’t matter because Tempest is going to the final four. And here’s a problem alright: The Merchant of Venice over Troilus and Cressida. No way that’s happening. Achilles takes it to the hoop past Shylock every time. And Antonio just doesn’t match up well with Ajax in the post. Final Four: Troilus and Cressida v. The Tempest and Henry IV v. Hamlet. Finals: Hamlet v. The Tempest. Hamlet is the favorite, but they’ll all be dead by then, and The Tempest has magic going for it, which is pretty tough to beat. And won’t it be great to see Caliban cutting down the nets?

caliban 2

Time, Time, Time Ain’t on My Side

But at my back I always hear

Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near

Marvell, “To His Coy Mistress

 I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Eliot, “Prufrock”

Of course, time seems to pass more rapidly as we age because of the forever diminishing frames-of-references that years represent.

For example, when I was five, a student at Miss Marion’s kindergarten, a year was a fifth of my life and seemed as expansive as a continent.  The previous Christmas seemed like a far distant outpost several time zones removed, separated by a progression of slow transpiring days that unfurled and closed like lazy morning glories.

[check out the vines on the left as Cat Stevens rejoices]

Now, that I’m 61, a year seems like one revolution on a Tilt-a-Whirl that’s gone haywire in Max Sennett short – each successive whirl faster – last Christmas seeming a day or two ago and the next a day or two away.

But here’s the thing.  For the past week it’s as if I exist in a Rod Sterling directed Twilight Zone adaptation of a Kafka short story.

Every time I reach for something, it’s the very last one available!  It’s ubiquitous.  Uncanny.

For example, the day before yesterday, I had to replace the toilet paper roll in the master bath and the very next day needed to replace the roll in what we euphemistically call “the powder room.”  Coincidence – of course – but then last night as I unfurled the dental floss, the spool unwound and spit out the last remaining thread . This morning’s dry dog food scooping found the cup hitting the bottom, the food not completely done, but within three or four days of depletion.

And here’s the clincher: at school, I forgot to hit the staple function on the copier in the work room,[1] so had to staple my Romanticism tests by hand, and guess what, not only did the first stapler I used run out of staples, but the next one did as well!

To be honest, though, there was plenty of looseleaf paper to distribute to my students who are at this very moment in time explaining why this stanza of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” conforms to the subject matter and poetic conventions of Romanticism:

What though the radiance which was once so bright

Be now for ever taken from my sight,

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind;

In the primal sympathy

Which having been must ever be;

In the soothing thoughts that spring

Out of human suffering;

In the faith that looks through death,

In years that bring the philosophic[2]

9c42678f7430e9dcb89d033ce6cc5fdf


[1] By the way, in those halcyon days before email, the copy room called the Lounge, and perhaps the fact that we in the working world are so busy there’s no time for contemplation may also play a role in the seeming acceleration of time’s passage.

[2] Of course, when I was copying my rubric for grading my students’ responses the copier ran out of paper.  I swear!

Why I Ain’t Inviting Jesus to My Fantasy Dinner

Image

Once upon the time, our local paper published a Thursday supplement that targeted local geographical communities like “West Ashley,” “East Cooper,” “Summerville,” etc. In those supplements a column called “Do You Know?” featured interviews with faux celebrities like the heads of recreation departments, popular bartenders, and other notable citizens that help make life more bearable for us First World sufferers. We’d learn the towns and cities of their births, their idea of a fun weekend, their favorite dishes, and inevitably, their chosen guests at a “fantasy dinner.”

Without a doubt, the most popular fantasy dinner invite of all time was Jesus. Not Jesus Alou, mind you, but the Jesus, the one from Nazareth. I’ll get into why choosing accompanying guests is problematic with Jesus at the table, but first, let’s address a gargantuan challenge involved with entertaining Joseph and Mary’s first born.

He speaks Aramaic!

If you’re thinking, yeah, but he’s the Son of God, a miracle worker, let me remind you he was also Mary’s son, i.e., half human and sometimes plagued with doubts (cf., Gethsemane). From my reading of the Gospels, it’s not as if he had a clear pipeline to God through which the latter would walkie-talkie-like tell him what to do. Turning water into wine, casting out demons, walking on water seem like veritable pieces of cake compared to mastering a language that didn’t even exist when you were alive.

No, if I had the chance to meet Jesus in the flesh I’d want him all to myself, to be able to look him in the eye, perhaps to pantomime messages back and forth, to have the focus to be only on him. In other words, I don’t want Leonardo or Nietzsche, or Lady Gaga distracting me with Jesus in the house.

C’mon folks, invite fun folk who speak the same language to your fantasy dinners: Groucho, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, or if you wanna get shit-faced with the dead, Richard Burton or Christopher Hitchens.

Oops, this just in from my superego: “It’s a fantasy, jackass, make believe. You can have Jesus speak English if you want.”

Okay, then. What about dress? Nice casual? A clean robe for Jesus, a diaphanous jumpsuit for Lady Gaga? And what to serve? Loaves and fishes? Wiener schnitzel?

Like, I said Richard Burton and Christopher Hitchens . . .