Reading Opening Lines
by Jake McPherson
A screaming comes across the sky.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon opens with that sentence. I like the simple, declarative structure. Sound takes on the active role. Something that we see as normally passive and received becomes the actor, the mover. It does so in a medium that is painted with adjectives to adorn it with meaning. Here sky stands alone. It’s not stormy, blue, clear, cloudy, or even star-studded.
And how does sound relate to this empty sky? It comes. Of all the ways it could have passed, ridden, approached, or appeared. The whole idea has been stripped to its essence, and in those naked words, a glimmer of what is to come is born.
Opening sentences carry enormous responsibility in books. They have to inform the reader about the subject of the book, and good ones subtly set the tone. Great ones make the astute reader stop and stare. The line quoted above is one of those. It announces to anyone interested enough to consider it that the following book is going to be loud enough to fill an empty space. Gravity’s Rainbow roared into literary space in 1973 and has been the subject of study, adoration, and derision ever since. It happens to be one of my top 5 favorite books.
Another great book also opens simply. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden starts with “The Salinas Valley is in Northern California.” At first glance, the sentence is almost boring, until you consider the elements. There is a name, and there is place echoed from the book’s title. What follows in the story is a wrestling of name and identity in place that grows, anchors, and frees.
I read books. I can tell a lot by the opening line. I’ve read some pieces in which I knew the entire plot by the first sentence, and I’ve read some that needed a lot of work on that one little sentence.
My favorite opening line of all time comes from a little book with a big title, Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett. While it’s very good, no, the book did not win the National Book Award. That’s not what we’re here to consider.
What does the opening line say?
Lightning sought our mother out, when she was a young girl in Brown County, Indiana.
There it is. It’s got sentient natural electrical weather. It’s got the maternal role juxtaposed against the promise of a youthful girl. And it’s got place. I love that the moving inanimate electricity searches for the girl. It injects just a note of paranoia. But it’s in the past and in a seemingly unlikely place. The book goes on to fulfill the promise of this opening. It’s got bad weather and women and an odd place little thought of by people except those who live there.
When I browse bookshops, I often read the opening lines of books. I rarely look at what the cover has to say. The verbiage written on the dust jacket is advertising, but the opening line is there to hook me. It’s there to compel to read what follows.