Thursday, June 9, 2011

great first pages (a tangent)

So, I've been out of it for a few months. I'm sorry.

I have been reading, though, so I will try to catch up on blog posts, or at least start posting about what I'm reading at the moment.

For now, though: I just started a Fiction Writing class, and we got a great assignment. Bring in the first page of a published work of fiction that you think is great. Just the first page. No judgment about the book as a whole, literary merit, etc. Just a great first page, for any reason you like.

I have been having so much fun mulling this over. I think we should do this here. I'll start with a few of my favorites.

This one because there is no preamble, no orientation for first-timers, no sunny start. Right down to the grim business. Electrifying. And I remember a hot night in the summer of 2007, knee deep in the School at Steppenwolf but still waiting in line at midnight on a weeknight at Unabridged in Boystown to claim my pre-ordered copy. The line started outside the store, then snaked through the tidy bookshelves, a bunch of adult nerds cramped but happy. The book hit my hands at the entrance to what looked like a broom closet. I was then guided into the closet and through a second door inside it, finally finding myself dumped out into the back alley. Perfect. Stayed up till 2:30 reading. Beautiful memory. Great first page. Great book. I just pretend the epilogue doesn't exist:
The two men appeared out of nowhere, a few yards apart in the narrow, moonlit lane. For a second they stood quite still, wands directed at each other's chests; then, recognizing each other, they stowed their wands beneath their cloaks and started walking briskly in the same direction.

"News?" asked the taller of the two.

"The best," replied Severus Snape.

The lane was bordered on the left by wild, low-growing brambles, on the right by a high, neatly manicured hedge. The men's long cloaks flapped around their ankles as they marched.

"Thought I might be late," said Yaxley, his blunt features sliding in and out of sight as the branches of overhanging trees broke the moonlight. "It was a little trickier than I expected. But I hope he will be satisfied. You sound confident that your reception will be good?"

Snape nodded, but did not elaborate. They turned right, into a....

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling

This one marks the beginning of the end of Harry-Potter-as-children's-book. It was thrilling at the time and still hooks me right away. Shame. Less:
The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it "the Riddle House," even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there. It stood on a hill overlooking the village, some of its windows boarded, tiles missing from its roof, and ivy spreading unchecked over its face. Once a fine-looking manor, and easily the largest and grandest building for miles around, the Riddle House was now damp, derelict, and unoccupied.

The Little Hangletons all agreed that the old house was "creepy." Half a century ago, something strange and horrible had happened there, something that the older inhabitants of the village still liked to discuss when topics for gossip were scarce. The story had been picked over so many times, and had been embroidered in so many places, that nobody was quite sure what the truth was anymore. Every version of the tale, however, started in the same place: Fifty years before, at daybreak on a fine summer's morning, when the....

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling

This one's for Dorothy (and Frank Galati, who used some of this page as a vocal warm up in Presentational Aesthetics, my #1 favorite class at Northwestern):
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all, had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

I was born in 1910, in Paris. My father was a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of the Danube in his veins. I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards. He owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera. His father and two grandfathers had sold wine, jewels and silk, respectively. At thirty he married an English girl, daughter of....

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

This is my favorite, the one I'll take to class, the one that takes my breath away:
I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.

But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like, and the first thing you know I'm telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars!

Or somebody asks me, "What was Guadalcanal actually like?" And before I can describe that godforsaken backwash of the world, I'm rambling on about the Remittance Man, who lived among the Japs and sent us radio news of their movements. That is, he sent the news until one day.

The people intervene. The old savage who wanted more than anything else in the world to jump from an airplane and float down to earth in a parachute. "Alla same big....

Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener