Thursday, October 6, 2011

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

How to begin? How to cross that terrible threshold between not-saying-something and saying-something? Preachers often begin with a joke. Some newscasters say a quick "good evening" before reminding their viewers that lawmakers are still myopic and that the rest of mankind is still murderous. Complainers always begin with "I don't mean to complain, but."

For fiction writers, general wisdom and tradition says to follow the advice of Horace's Ars Poetica: begin in medias res, or in the thick of action. Consider the opener of The Sound and the Fury: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting." No introductions. We don't know what fence it is, who "I" is (am?), or who "they" are. But whoever "they" are, "they" are already hitting when the book opens. Or take a look at the first line of Catch-22: "It was love at first sight." Part of what makes that such a good first line for a novel is that in lesser hands it would work so well as a second line. "Once a guy named Arnie was standing at a street corner when a beautiful girl in a blue '72 'Vette drove up and stopped. It was love at first sight." In any case, novel writers usually start in the middle of the action. Unless you know how to finish a chapter that starts "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," you don't begin a novel with a chapter of exposition and background.

Anthony Trollope begins Doctor Thorne, the book I started two days ago, with three chapters of exposition, although he calls it two chapters when he apologizes for it. So he breaks the rule, miscounts or lies about the severity of the infraction, and then calls attention to his misdeed with the apology . . . and I love it. Trollope knows he's making a joke, and he makes sure the reader is in on it.

Like a Bauhaus architect, Trollope leaves all the vital works of his edifice showing: he talks explicitly about himself, his choices, and the reader's choices. The first sentence announces that "before the reader is introduced to the modest country medical practitioner who is to be the chief personage of the following tale, it will be well that he should be made acquainted with . . . the neighbors among whom our doctor followed his profession." He then proceeds with a chapter about the Greshams and explains that the story will begin with a coming-of-age party held, in honor of young Frank Gresham, in the park of Greshamsbury. Near the end of the chapter, after providing some geography and a lot of back story, Trollope says "we have kept the Greshamsbury tenantry waiting under the oak-trees far too long," but still the story does not begin. In chapter 2, he says with a wink, "A few words must still be said about Miss Mary before we rush into our story." Two chapters later, he reminds the reader again that the story is to begin with the party. I'm now 18% of the way through (according to the Kindle), and the "main" narrative thread still sits on Frank's twenty-first birthday.

The reader's part in the jest is revealed at the beginning of chapter 2: "As Dr Thorne is our hero -- or I should rather say my hero, a privilege of selecting for themselves in this respect being left to all my readers -- and as Miss Mary Thorne is to be our heroine, a point on which no choice whatsoever is left to anyone, it is necessary that they shall be introduced and explained and described in a proper, formal manner." And here's another layer in the joke: even though Trollope at various times refers explicitly to the characters as creations of his own mind, he treats them with all the respect afforded to his flesh-and-blood readers, obeying all the niceties of social intercourse and making all due obeisances to class. At one point he asks the reader's indulgence as he attempts to drop "Lady" from references to Lady Alexandrina simply for the easier flow of the prose. But two pages later he finds that his pen will not allow him to take the liberty. Sly dog, that Trollope: the device is both a piece of self-referential humor and a not-so-subtle nod to the democratic reforms that Lady Alexandrina's family fears.

Of course the comedy works because the first chapters are anything but dull, despite Trollope's protestations. But before I rush into that story, I must rest the pen and enjoy a night's rest.

post scriptum The words of my title, often considered the worst opening line in the history of literature, do not open Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Paul Clifford. Chapter one begins in fact with a poetic epigraph suggesting that dark and stormy nights forebode evil times. To the reader belongs the privilege of deciding whether this information makes the opening of that novel better or worse.

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