Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Hands down the best opening ever

It's tough to know where to start with a blog, but since this is my very first post ever, I thought--why not begin with beginnings? So here I am, opening with the opening to Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides—read it and weep. Oh, also, just to torture yourself, guess how many words it was (answer at bottom of post).

On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, “This ain’t TV, folks, this is how fast we go.” He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began. (p3, ¶1)

What’s totally great and unusual about this is that the opening tells you what is going to happen in the rest of the story. No spoiler alert—just boom! Out with the events to come.

You probably wouldn’t always want to do this, I’m guessing, but in this case, but it really grabbed my attention. First of all, the fact that multiple daughters from same family are going to commit suicide is insanely interesting. But it still leaves open the mystery of how and why, which gives me something that I really badly want to spend a whole novel figuring out. Then there’s the first hint that something disastrous—and maybe even sinister—has happened (the line about the bushes growing monstrous is really ominous), and that this story will be told by an outside community looking in (the paramedics move too slowly “in our opinion”), which adds an extra layer of narrative intrigue and a voyeuristic feel. And finally, there’s a dark, gallows-type humor in the situation of the ragamuffin EMS team called out for the umpteenth suicide scene.

But, in my opinion, I think the clincher is that final line, the one about “when the trouble began”—it takes a really effective, authoritative narrator to make a reader want to jump back in time, all the way back to the beginning of a tale, after just one paragraph. With most beginning writers, this would be the point where the reader thinks Oh, God, please don't kill me with backstory, but in this case, we want to know everything. Or at least I do! And it’s all done in a really compact space (see below).

Answer to how many words in the opening paragraph: 48. That’s right—there are fewer words in this paragraph than American states. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

Quote from: Jeffrey Eugenides. The Virgin Suicides. London, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing; 2002. (paperback edition)