Today, Shirley Jackson, best known for “The Lottery,” but whose stylish, edge-wise view of life extended to many other novels and several clear-eyed (and hilarious) takes on family life.
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”
The kickoff of We Have Always Lived in The Castle.
“It is about water. It was about water in the beginning, it will be in the end.”
This is the opening of Thomas Sanchez’ Mile Zero, a great Key West novel. It explores the figurative (and literal) “end of the road” that also inspired Wallace Steven’s extraordinary poem “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which opens,
“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”
Today’s first line if from E.B. White’s Stuart Little:
“When Mrs. Frederick C. Little’s second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse.”
White managed the rare feat of being a fine essayist–his lean prose style, gently humorous, yet fierce, set a standard for American mid-century prose–and writing two children’s classics; I loved them (and even liked his third) and also spent many years trying, fruitlessly, to catch the rhythm of his lines.
From “Twelfth Night” the wonderful opening of a most musical play:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour!
For today, Thomas Pynchon’s “Crying of Lot 49,” introducing his protagonist and, in passing, displaying his penchant for goofy names.
“One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”
Another of his great openers: “A screaming comes across the sky…” from Gravity’s Rainbow.
Per usual, I’ve found a gimmick for April blogging. This time, a memorable opening line or opening passage, one for each day. To start with the inevitable:
“Call Me Ishmael.”
This opens Herman Melville’s epic Moby Dick, a universe (or many) in a single novel.
Noble, and also such good material for jokes. Here is one of my favorites, from the now somewhat forgotten New Yorker humorist, Peter De Vries. He opens his “Vale of Laughter” novel, about one Joe Sandwich, thus:
“Call me, Ishmael. Feel absolutely free to call me any hour of the day or night at the office or at home . . .”