About Writers, reading, writing technique

Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

This could, I hope, become an ongoing series, but not all written by me. Anyone can take a turn, and it will be more interesting for the variety. It springs from Mimi’s recent suggestion that someone should post  some first paragraphs from novels or short stories.  Discussion, consideration, ratings and arguments could follow after in the comments section. It sounded like fun to me.  As an extra-added attraction, I’m not going to name the author or the book. Of course, some you (or some of you) will know instantly. Others may puzzle. They all come from books I enjoy or admire. Some are rather plain, others audaciously unconventional.

The title of the post is just me goofing around.  After all, a good first paragraphs can knock us on our ass.  It can seduce into opening an unknown door.  It can dazzle and baffle in a way that makes going forward our only choice.

Those are, of course, only three possibilities.



to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.


I begin with an unbeginning. Or maybe with an unfinished ending. The confusion of the first three lines could seem to some as mere artsiness for its own sake, just fancy word-flinging, but that’s too easy a dismissal. This massive books creeps in from the mist and the smoke, entering our consciousness like some misshapen beast. During its 800 pages, it will find and lose solid footing in reality a dozen times.  The “All I know, you know” paragraph lays out themes and images that echo throughout the rest of the text. The semantic twists of this obscure list knock us off stride before we even begin, but that is only too appropriate for a novel that will never stop lurching and turning (careening and grinding) all the way through to the


First the colors.
Then the humans.
That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.

HERE IS A SMALL FACT.  You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.


Another appealingly unconventional beginning. This was actually a very popular novel a few years ago, which only goes to show that you can begin a novel any way at all and still succeed in engaging the reader’s attention, as long as you know and trust your craft.


Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.

First, picture a forest. I want you to be its conscience, the eyes in the trees. The trees are columns of slick, brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason. Every space is filled with life: delicate, poisonous frogs war-painted like skeletons, clutched in copulation, secreting their precious eggs onto dripping leaves. Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight. The breathing of monkeys. A glide of snake belly on branch. A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen. And, in reply, a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.


Such juicy writing!  They say don’t begin with description. This book rarely stops describing things. There’s very little dialogue. The story is told from multiple points of view, but the main character is the one seen here at the beginning—the forest itself. The last sentence could be a motto for the whole novel.



See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are know for hewers of wood and drawers of water but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster. He lies in drink, he quotes from poets whose names are now lost. The boy crouches by the fire and watches him. 


So quiet. So simple. So ominous.  In very few lines, two characters have already been given weight, contour, and personality.  I particularly like the language, which is at once idiosyncratic, arcane and lovely.



I had been sick for a long time. When the day came for me to leave the hospital, I barely knew how to walk anymore, could barely remember who I was supposed to be. Make an effort, the doctor said, and in three of four months you’ll be back in the swing of things. I didn’t believe him, but I followed his advice anyway. They had given me up for dead, and now that I had confounded their predictions and mysteriously failed to die, what choice did I have but to live as though a future life were waiting for me?


I particularly like the notion of failing to die, almost as if something monstrous had happened.  This was a quirky and troubling little novel. I think the opening does a nice job of setting the reader ill at ease.  (Question: Why “were waiting for me” instead of “was waiting for me”? Some foreshadowing that his future life is somehow plural?)


I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane
I was the smudge of ashen fluff–and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky,
And from the inside, too, I’d duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I’d let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!


Yes, this a novel—a novel that happens to begin with 99 lines worth of heroic couplets.  The rest of the novel is several hundred pages of commentary by one of the least reliable narrators you will ever meet. The poem itself is marvelous, playful, and heart rending. The commentary is a whacky tale of political intrigue by a madman who uses an academic exercise as an excuse to tell his own (perhaps) delusional tale.

All right. Enough from me.  Can anyone identify the openings? More to the point, how do these work for you? What thoughts do they inspire?



11 thoughts on “Firsts: Fists, Flirtations and Befuddlement

  1. The only opening I immediately recognized was the first: Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. As to what thoughts these words originally inspired when I read them some 30 years ago:

    (1) WTF?!
    (2) Oh, I get it; prose poetry.
    (3) This is going to be a very long and difficult book.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. mimispeike says:

    These are lovely, lyrical passages. My question is, does a (delicious) plain-talk story follow, as in the case of A River Runs Through It? In which case I would have to see the next paragraph(s) to know if I want to read on.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    Pale Fire. I have to get it. I love Nabokov, mostly (I had to have read Lolita, but so long ago I remember nothing), mostly from his autobiography Speak, Memory.

    So here it’s the name that sells it to me.

    I am working on some obscure paragraphs of my own. I am trying to find books I love, by no one much known, of which I have many, thanks to shopping the discard sales for thirty years.

    I will try to choose books that embody the following: (just spotted, from Dylan) . . . reading that gives you a way of looking at life. Implicit is the sense of an expanded way, more aware. Maybe refining your thinking, maybe showing you ways to tell a story that you had not considered. It’s a line from Dylan’s Nobel lecture, and it hits me as exactly what I am after, not a plot per se, but a goose of my apprehension that will stick with me, enrich my own work.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. GD Deckard says:

    Woot! Great idea, Mimi and Atthys.

    Dahlgren cannot be forgotten. Ever.

    2, 3, 5 & 6, I don’t know but wouldn’t usually read a first person.

    4 I don’t know but now I want to read that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • atthysgage says:

      That’s interesting that so many of my choices were (or seemed to be) first person. Number 2 (The Book Thief) really doesn’t function as a first person because the narrator is not a character (well, he sort of is, though not much in the moment by moment workings of the plot). It mostly reads as third person.

      Number 3 (The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver) is technically first person, but the narrator shifts from chapter to chapter (I think there are five narrators altogether) so it doesn’t feel like typical first person either.

      Number 5 (I might as well just give up all the titles) is Oracle Night by Paul Auster. That certainly is first person.

      Number 6 (Pale Fire) is first person, but Kinbote is one of those narrators who can’t be trusted. One of the great pleasures and challenges of Pale Fire is trying to sort out just where the truth lies (though that remains uncertain, even in the end) and why the hell the narrator is spinning such elaborate fictions. It’s both fascinating and frustrating, but never dull.

      Liked by 3 people

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