Monthly Archives: April 2014

15 Specious Novel Openings

Psyche-and-Cupid-300x200A colleague sent me a list of famous opening lines from stories and novels—some usual suspects like “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and some I didn’t know, like “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, 1992) and “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, 1956). That last one, my colleague pointed out, was the only dialogue in “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.”

I’ve been ill this week and haven’t the concentration or will to write much, so I’m posting 15 opening lines for imaginary fiction. I’ve also supplied pretend titles and years to reflect styles of the time, and, yes, one uses dialogue. If you read a lot, you may recognize I’m parroting writers I’ve encountered.

Here goes:

1. He found nowhere to sit, which annoyed him, and the hammering conversation, laughter, synthpop, and his third gin and tonic compounded the headache that met him at the door. (Silverhair, 1985)

2. Sydney put his hat on the shelf in the coat closet and called his wife’s name. (Sydney Burroughs, 1938)

3. She wiped the blood from her finger onto her cheek and giggled. (Polly, 1971)

4. When Henry Stanbury cleared the mist within the carriage window with his ungloved hand, he discovered another layer of grey without, a city half-hidden in fog, and a few drifting souls making and breathing the steam of reluctant dawn. (Castle Palace, 1862)

5. The last thing to worry about, I’ve discovered, is finding something to eat. (The Farrier’s Promise, 2004)

6. There was a mole to begin with, but that was enough. (The Medical Expert, 1925)

7. I could have told you my brother lied about our parents and all the good they did for strangers because I grew up in the same house and watched them every morning put on masks and become strangers themselves. (Glad Is Your Reward, 1956)

8. “You must understand, lapshichka,” Grandpa would say, “no woman thinks first of the circus.” (The Beaten Road, 1978)

9. The noontime sun slanting through the jail window reached just his foot, and he dipped his toes into and out of the light considering (with no success) when in his drunk wandering he’d taken his shoe off. (The Coopers, 1948)

10. Our house blazed all night to neighbors’ oohs and aahs. (Miranda, 1996)

11. The screen door snapped shut behind him, and he turned to face a kitchen scene including Theodora Roos retching in the sink, her children spooning Alpha Bits into their maws, and Theodora’s husband Kenny reading or, more properly, shouting from a letter announcing the failure of their appeal and the imminent evaporation of all their hopes for a substantial settlement. (The Passage of Night Planes, 1966)

12. The bay stilled as the sun fell, and the city’s lights shone on its surface like jewels in gunmetal. (Pyroglyph, 1986)

13. Those well familiar with the affair counted it as indeed fortunate more damage to young Crosswick’s reputation did not accrue from his misstep, but Frederick Crosswick was not finished yet. (A Spring in Mercia, 1896)

14. I wasn’t there, but when I was twelve a boy named Otto who lived just down the block died when he fell from a tree and onto his bicycle. (Ithaca, 2009)

15. Every book begins by announcing itself—think of the blast of the ship horn and it’s done. (When the Moon Droops, trans. from Italian, 1989)

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Trespassing

Today, fiction:broken-window2

“A stack of photos”

He didn’t need to say it. His brain labeled what he saw, and he was alone. Yet, something said he should push his voice into the air, so he did.

These pictures didn’t belong to him and captured moments he never witnessed. They depicted strangers, and, though he felt something in the smiles, he was sure he’d feel more if he, like the photographer, turned a camera to returned affection.

His mother once took photographs on Easter and Christmas. Evidence had long disappeared, but they’d been a family. His father stayed over. He slept, as other fathers must—he thought—in bedrooms dim with sleep and company, curtains heavy and drawn, light seeping only where privacy allowed. So often, on Saturday mornings, he’d found his mother and father entwined. Before it became just her.

After his father left for good, she snapped at him. He might fight back.

This stack of photos described time. Some of the subjects aged, and the places seemed somehow aged too, as if they’d absorbed the colors of an era—harvest gold, avocado, a gray indigo no one liked much but chose anyway.

He shuffled rectangles and found so little to impede him. “Yes, yes, yes,” the images slid by, greased by months and years insisting on progress.

“You bastard,” he said. He hit a patch where the same woman’s face stuttered through frame and frame, neck tipped back, eyes half shuttered, smile stretched because nothing, nothing, nothing restrained it.

One evening, his sister asked, “Do you remember how she was with him? Did she love him?”

He said, “Yes,” less out of belief and more because his sister desired an answer.

When she invited men home, he knew not to believe. He looked into their smiles and sought warmth. He found need akin to his own, expedience.

Tilting sun and fading will told him he must leave soon, but he’d seen no image he had to have, no moment irrepressible, no intimacy to borrow. He hated taking just anything when, if he waited, at any moment, the choice might land as in a saddle, perfect for galloping.

The usual panic rose. He’d be seen, known. Slipping past image after image, he saw lives piled in undifferentiated masses, misery compounded by desperation, desire by short-lived satisfaction, dreams by waking.

He chose nothing to carry away. He swept past the broken lock on the sliding glass door, through the yard, over the fence and into the alley. Looking left and right, he spied no other soul.

He went on.

 

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Four)

basho-loc-01518vOnce again, as part of NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) I’m offering haiku and prose in haibun. I have one more  Thursday in April. The entries below are attempts from the last few days. The numbers communicate how far I’ve traveled in this exercise.

lxxi.

folding a sheet

under a half-moon—a sail

and light put away

As probably everyone does, I turn my pillow to find its cool side. My new posture—collecting the compressed mass under my head and resting on my ribs—discovers my heartbeat, pounding like a wake to a shore.

you maybe said

time was near—I heard bells

clashing

Getting up never seems easy. Slow or fast or delayed or denied, it ruins two states. Dreams end in cataclysm and consciousness starts in shock. I suppose in some past the transition was gentle, dawning birds and light and warmth, but I don’t know that.

already someone’s

steps echo from the corner—

begin again

the day’s first words

skid in my throat—I collect

sound to speak

lxxii.

You told me not to say it, not in words but in your expression—a starched smile, eyes barely alive—and still I went ahead. Light dimmed. The sun seemed hooded through blinds, and shadows strained to reach across the carpet.

in profile,

a crow shows one eye—looking

or not, who knows?

lxxiii.

Nanette Wagoner couldn’t like me, and I knew that, should have known that. Something set her on, and, in three days, she sent me note after note filled with words. I only knew her face and didn’t read the messages really, just weighed their length and followed the loops of letters to the end. One day, she’d be taller than I would, I saw that. We shared no classes, but when she laughed just inside my hearing, the sound buzzed in my chest.

If she liked me, I would like her.

what a wonder

day falls—the sun drowning

over and over

Of course she lost interest, but the notes anchored a drawer for years, proof of appeal, a place.

lxxiv.

I stole a large canvas laundry bin from my dorm and rolled it, full of my possessions, from 123th to 113th where friends lived. My classmate and his fiancé may not both have wanted me but felt sorry enough to let me stay for a time. My year—not even a year—in New York ended, and I wouldn’t return to school. I thought of working while I found a job, pictured bearing satchels while bicycling through traffic. Without prospects though, who could believe something so hard?

green peach,

what sign told you

to drop?

This trip started with my telling my girlfriend goodbye. She’d asked for one more night and cried, still we’d agreed to no more. She’d never left her other boyfriend, the weekends I pretended not to know her were sad, and another year of schooling awaited her and not me. Time expired.

The wheels, barely bigger than casters, danced under the load, and no effort I made to guide my craft by pushing the correct corner kept it from fishtailing, sometimes into a current of pedestrians flowing the opposite direction. I said, “I’m sorry” one hundred times. Early summer heat already rose in the first hours of sun, and by the time I reached my friends’ buzzer, I was soaked, shirt and pants clinging. He laughed to see me exhausted by such a silly journey, but helped with my load, soon to be a pile in the corner of his living room.

beneath the surface,

beneath its skin, beasts move—

the sea still

In another two weeks my brother would drive up from home, and I’d leave for good. My possessions never left their boxes. I watched my friend study at what I’d abandoned and plan his next steps over terrain that slid under my feet.

steady thump

of highway seams, dawn slanted

just wrong

lxxv.

Doing the dishes, I occasionally splash water on my shirtfront and spend the next hour flapping the fabric to dry it. Something about the act reminds me of childhood, restless winging, the tug to what’s next.

I blink

between scenes and still

never move

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My Hater

haterSome years ago, I returned to my classroom and discovered everything swept from my desk and onto the floor. The glass in my wife’s framed picture cracked. A stoneware mug where I kept my pens—the prize for winning my age group in The Kentucky Derby Half-Marathon—sat in two parts. The figure atop a women’s cross-country conference trophy splintered at the ankle. Dirt from a plant mixed with paper and a coffee cup’s contents.

That year, a group of sophomores regularly hung out in my room, and I asked them what they knew. They’d been in math or Spanish or art and hadn’t seen anything. I learned nothing more, but something in their expressions suggested restraint. A few seemed poised to speak but didn’t, bound by the no-tattle code. I had my theory, and, uncharitably, assigned the act to a student I knew hated me.

Few people like being hated, and I don’t consider myself interesting enough to be worthy of hate, not the sort to inspire vehemence of any sort. I certainly try not to be detestable. Teaching colleagues sometimes say, “If someone doesn’t hate you, you’re not requiring enough of your students.” I never repeat that advice. Hate, I prefer to believe, isn’t about its object. It is broadcast instead of targeted, or targeted only to release the pressure of a deeper, wider well of dissatisfaction, usually with yourself.

Haters, T-shirt wisdom goes, are gonna hate. It ‘s them, not us.

Yet a sort of pheromonal and supernatural enmity existed between me and my suspect, and, if love inspires reciprocation, so does hate. I worked at what professional decorum requires—reminding myself, mantrically, “I’m the adult”—but found no easy solution. I’d catch judgment, sarcasm, and dismissal inside our exchanges.

I care for humanity more now but haven’t eluded antipathy altogether. Occasionally someone or something irks me, and I douse it with explanation, understanding, empathy. Yet hatred as a broadcast is in me too, and, battling it, I say my backbone and not my brain or soul deserves blame. That’s not so or, if it’s so, I need the grace to pretend otherwise.

Were my suspect reading now, I might say, “Hey, listen. Whatever happened, I don’t care. I understand in the moment whatever you did made sense to you. I don’t blame you for thinking I deserved it… as wrong as you were.”

You hear how poorly I perform. That probably wouldn’t work, then or now. Anyone listening would know I don’t empathize, don’t believe, and am living above—instead of with—the truth. I’m disgusted with myself that my rational half will never outface my emotional half, disgusted that I can’t write down all the aspects of character I desire and make them real. And there’s still plenty of disgust left over for the accused too.

Back then, superglue and I became intimate. The trophy and the mug found something like their old form. My wife’s picture disappeared in favor of a more current photo and frame. The plant was nearly dead to begin with. I settled on saying I didn’t know what happened and reassured myself when any other possibility leapt into my head. I still don’t know.

My suspect and I engaged in just a few more stilted and brittle conversations. At the end of the year, he transferred to a boarding school—I wrote one of his recommendations, as was required by his application—and we’ve seen each other only once since then. We didn’t speak, just locked eyes across a room.

I looked for something like guilt in his face, didn’t see it, and was glad… for all the right, and all the wrong, reasons.

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Going Long: Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

o-THE-GOLDFINCH-900Tolstoy and Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, masters of the long novel, have a rival in Donna Tartt, author most recently of The Goldfinch. Reviewing her work, critics call it “Dickensian,” and with good reason. She’s just as ambitious, just as intent on immersing a reader in her narrative.

Finishing a long novel sometimes produces a sort of post-partum depression. If the characters are companionable and the scenery engrossing, the next day may feel a little flat, as if excitement just departed and gray routine took its place. Tartt, however, seems after something a little different.

People say form follows function, but perhaps the opposite is just as true. The effect of a form often arises from that form. Unlike movies, novels (any novel but longer ones particularly) aren’t intended to be consumed in a single sitting, and thus a moving story haunts a reader between encounters. The reason students should write about books in present tense, their teachers explain, is that whatever a reader discusses is still happening, right now, between the book’s covers. The reader my wander off, but the book has its own life. It’s easy to believe fiction continues even when no one watches.

With long novels, form governs a reader’s response even more vividly. Dickens’ painstaking attention to minutiae fills his fiction with shadowy corners and unopened but real rooms. His subtle presentation of even the most minor characters leaves them lingering in a reader’s imagination even when they’re offstage. As different as his worlds are—and they grow more different year by year—they seem actual, complete.

In The Goldfinch, Tartt demonstrates similar ambitions. Theo Decker, narrator of the novel, moves from New York, to Vegas, back to New York, and on to Antwerp, and each place has idiosyncratic light and space, odd smells and colors, distinctive possessions and detritus. Characters, in all senses of the word, populate these peculiar places. Theo Decker may hold the center, but the characters winging in orbit around him are powerful influences too. His friend Boris is particularly well-drawn, as a reader may never really believe he’s gone even though he exits the story, seemingly for good, multiple times.

Yet Tartt’s novel also renovates the form. Where Dickens and Garcia-Marquez, and especially Tolstoy, rely on essayistic passages to abstract the action and address broader concerns, Tartt never really leaves her action for long—at least, until the last few pages. In other authors’ work, these passages are a sort of respite for the reader, and Tartt offers little. She leaves her story in disarray. The burden of each moment’s concerns can create discomfort and enervation, itchiness akin to wearing a cast or sitting trapped in concert with a bad cough.

Dickens infuses characters with sweetness by placing them in dire but nonetheless hopeful contexts. Critics in his own time and since have justifiably accused him of sentimentality and bombast. Tartt seems intent on eluding his influence by denying nearly every character any lasting sweetness. Figures a reader might like—Theo’s unrequited love Pippa and his benefactors Hobie and Mrs. Barfour—are often ineffectual. Or they are victims of Theo’s relentless missteps or colored by cynical judgments. A reader may find it hard to encounter The Goldfinch without wanting to scratch… or come up for air.

Many contemporary authors test the lower limits of exposition, and novels like Gone Girl seem made to antagonize readers as well as attract them, often at the same time. Readers, it turns out, like watching traffic accidents too… the question is only how long. Like Gillian Flynn, Tartt tests readers’ patience, perhaps even their perseverance. Theo screws up on nearly every page and, if Tartt hopes his inherent goodness allies a reader to him—the decency beneath his theft, drug-use, apathy, denial, ignorance, and sometimes obsessive and aggravating grief—she also means to make liking him challenging. At the end of David Copperfield, Great Expectations, or Bleak House, a reader takes big bites to reach a desired destination. By the end of Tartt’s novel a reader may want escape and relief, an end to an all-too-full meal.

For anyone who hasn’t read The Goldfinch, one spoiler is necessary: it will end well. Though developments lift a reader at times, they won’t offer hope as frequently as some readers might like. Tartt makes it quite easy to believe that, any moment now, the pudding can still turn to excrement, and the end is still hundreds of pages away.

Some readers will celebrate her innovation and achievement, but some will want a more comfortable and companionable narrative, a book more like the long novels they regret finishing. The Goldfinch isn’t that sort of long novel.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Three)

basho-loc-01518vI’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. I’m posting them each Thursday in April. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

 liii.

Wandering the neighborhood when I was young, I passed a juniper bush and pulled dusty, blue-gray berries from branches and squeezed them between finger and thumb. The scent rising from the collision improved on any cologne I knew.

a gust rubs

leaves together—the rough sound

affection

Some smells affect me still. I can’t smell bayberry and balsam without thinking about Christmas or licorice without thinking of Easter.

a child told me

the chalk was hers, the drawing

her sister’s

I can’t smell bergamot without thinking of that afternoon in London when, having spent the day at the National Museum after finding no one to share my excursion, I wandered into a shop and ordered Earl Grey. It was after tea time and too early for supper. The evening stretched over the scarred table, all the pocks and pits craters in my close attention. Then my waitress sat down with me, asking me question after question until I felt I’d had an adventure.

We said goodbye knowing we knew one another.

incidental—

morning’s attention to

a lost glove

liv.

Watch enough sci-fi and you think of meeting extraterrestrials, stretching, stretching, stretching to imagine something outside your conception. If you really reached such possibilities, you’d be lost—words and gestures and emotions disparate, a meeting of rock and rock.

sparrow, I see you—

air separates us, time stalls

between us

lv.

One of my college roommates taught me to drive stick using my other roommate’s car. We never told him. In the Sunday parking lot, I lurched from start to stop, and soon the whole affair became purely laughable. We lifted into an ether of hilarity and sometimes had to pause to breathe enough oxygen. The car complained, but we didn’t. We enjoyed everything absurd in it, as, at that moment, we thought anyone would.

windows filmed:

I look out—the broken

gaze of shutters

Some weeks later, the car’s clutch died. I never spoke to either roommate about it, ducking my head to avoid revelation.

the last page—

notes I don’t understand

in my hand

lvi.

Sometimes reviewing memories means thinking of all I might have said. When my colleague asked, I didn’t exactly say what happened and, when she wanted to know about what he said, well…

outside this room,

arguing—her voice sings

a half-pitch too high

The problem is honesty—it always is—and what the occasion occasions and what transpires. I want to be proud. Instead, I feel flushed with confusion.

 inside this box,

another—another in that—

deep promises

She asked me. She asked what had been said against her and who spoke on her behalf. I remember she wanted to know, “Who was in the room?” and “Did you defend me?” They were questions I’d been instructed not to answer by people I cared less about. They were questions more likely than anyone in the room acknowledged.

Still, I said nothing. I quailed. Maybe I feared for my job.

hens’ posture

in the yard—strutting

inside the wire

 lvii.

When the sun sags toward buildings, I think it’s lazy, exhausted by its relentless, unvarying journey. I know that’s me—I’m tired.

the orchids

take days—grins unopened,

unknown

lviii.

I said you didn’t know me though I know you did.

at the bottom

a message—a moment’s

scrawl, wriggling

A sort of quiet calls for respect. You spoke and waited, watching me form responses from air. You may have known how little could be said, how evidence conspires, how a halting voice says more than words.

leaves reversed

awaiting rain, their gray

an extra face

We barely saw each other through dusk, as was proper. The edge of trees lost themselves in night sky.

 lix.

Consider this: everyone has embarrassment to recall.

two cars both ease

into a crossroad, close

enough to meet eyes

In fifth grade, Mrs. Cullen read my hijacked my note to Linda McClinton aloud. Mrs. Cullen emoted where the text demanded—the moment I said I really liked Linda and didn’t understand why she didn’t like me. The class laughed, especially Linda.

What choice did I have but to laugh too? The moment belonged in a book, the passage underlined.

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To Show For It

no-excuses-nike-football_1024x768_338-standard-e1327798385501Some people may see me as industrious—because I carry an overload in my already busy job as a teacher, because I keep up with four blogs and ten or eleven posts a week, because I sometimes make art on weekends, because I rise early to exercise, because I read, because I find time to watch Netflix, because I monitor Facebook and email and…

You see me stretch. The list changes from labor to leisure, fruitful to indulgent, necessity to caprice. Sometimes nothing I do seems positive. Passing time isn’t the same as productivity. Are my students learning—who knows? Am I writing anything worthwhile and is my writing improving—who knows? Is this weekend’s art any different from last weekend’s—who knows? Is my life enriching, evolving, satisfying? Um… not sure.

On Monday coworkers ask, “So what’d you do this weekend?” Most of the time, they mean to investigate fun, learn which social plans won the office-wide enjoyment contest. But the question doesn’t solicit agreeable responses. “I went to Home Depot…” someone begins, or “With the taxes due…” or “I’ve been putting off cleaning…” or “I needed…” or “I had to…” or, my favorite, “Ugh.”

When I see a play or travel or meet a friend, I’ll explain. Otherwise, I say, “Nothing.” What I did doesn’t stand out. I might brag about grading a bunch of papers. Mostly, my mind rewinds. What the hell DID I do? How did I accomplish so little?

America, we’re told, relies on industry, and no one ever accomplished anything without hard work and determination. Andrew Carnegie’s motto was “Honesty, industry, and concentration.” Benjamin Franklin said, “Sloth makes everything difficult, but industry, all things easy.” “The miracle, or the power, that elevates the few,” Mark Twain said, “is to be found in their industry, application, and perseverance under the prompting of a brave, determined spirit.”

You know you’re in trouble when even Mark Twain urges you to get off your ass.

My output seems inadequate, unsuitable for any report. I’d be culpable if I could have done more and/or done it better, but more frequently I’ve been busy as hell with little to recommend the time. The issue isn’t calories expended, but what I can show for them. How do I tell colleagues I wasted hours on haibun or how do I explain deleting an essay that, after five or six attempts, didn’t gel? The art I produce often fails utterly, useful only in what it indicates about what not to do next time.

So much, in other words, is spent in fumbling.

I enjoy painting and writing and creating in general yet recognize some product must blossom from all this effort. Maybe that expectation arises more from outside than inside, but I feel it. I’d like to be able to answer “What’d you do?’” with “Nothing” and not a jot of guilt. I’d like to say, “Stuff” and leave it at that.

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