Monday, January 29, 2007

A Great First Paragraph

I hope a few of you are fans of the late Stanley Elkin, whose antic and erudite comic novels inspired me enormously when my writing career was getting started. Elkin is one of those writers whose unevenness obscures his brilliance--on the sentence level, the paragraph level, the chapter level even, he's without peer. But his books rarely come fully together, at least for me.

There are a couple of perfect ones though, most notably The Magic Kingdom, which is about a group of terminally ill children on a trip to Disneyland. It's one of the funniest books I've ever read. And no, I'm not kidding.

Anyway, I often start my semester of teaching by asking students to bring in their favorite opening sentences and paragraphs. Most people bring in great books that happen to have great openings--I always try to bring in flawed books. A standby in this department is Elkin's The Franchiser. Of course there are people smarter than I am (William Gass, for instance, see link) who think it's perfect all the way through, but never mind. Here's the opening:

Past the orange roof and turquoise tower, past the immense sunburst of the green and yellow sign, past the golden arches, beyond the low buff building, beside the discrete hut, the dark top hat on the studio window shade, beneath the red and white longitudes of the enormous bucket, coming up to the thick shaft of the yellow arrow piercing the royal-blue field, he feels he is at home. Is it Nashville? Elmira, New York? St. Louis County? A Florida key? The Illinois arrowhead? Indiana like a holster, Ohio like a badge? Is he north? St. Paul, Minn.? Northeast? Boston, Mass.? The other side of America? Salt Lake? Los Angeles? At the bottom of the country? The Texas udder? Where? In Colorado's frame? Wyoming like a postage stamp? Michigan like a mitten? The chipped, eroding bays of the Northwest? Seattle? Bellingham, Washington?
     Somewhere in the packed masonry of states.

You could put three hundred pages of Christopher Hitchens behind that, and I'd still buy it.

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