Art of the Opening: Close Reading I
We’re back with another year of our occasional column exploring the art of the opening.
First impressions matter. The opening lines, paragraphs, and pages of a story, essay, memoir, or novel must not only hook the reader, they must ground us in the world of the story, in place, in time, in character. Landing an effective opening is no easy feat. At CRAFT we focus on writing craft in the prose we publish. With this column, we’re exploring the art of the opening in an interactive way, re-reading the masters, discussing openings with their writers, peeking behind the scenes at the revision process, essaying about what we find striking. With any luck, no two pieces will look exactly the same.
This column is led by associate editor Suzanne Grove and short fiction section editor Albert Liau, working together on behalf of CRAFT. With this piece, Grove launches a series of close readings, annotations of the first several hundred words of a piece. —CRAFT
If something nearing a primal pleasure skitters high up beneath your ribs and low in your gut when you read the first page of a story—if you experience a flume of anticipatory longing for the ways in which diction and syntax can pull you back into memory or push you forward into fantasy—then you’ll understand our urge to share close readings of our favorite opening paragraphs in short fiction.
Inspired in part by Benjamin Dreyer’s annotation of the opening paragraph of Shirley’s Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, this occasional series within our “Art of the Opening” column will flash a subjective but hopefully illuminating light on the first two-hundred or so words that begin a story. The aim here is threefold: to introduce our readers to new stories and new voices; to provide a miniature craft lesson; and to give some insight as to what CRAFT’s editors and readers enjoy.
Okay, fourfold: to reproduce that aforementioned rush of sensation. That tick, tick, tick of the gears chugging mechanically upward—all slick machinery and oiled metal and blue, blue sky—before the drop and descent into the rest of the story.
—Suzanne Grove for CRAFT
1. “Family Physics” by Catherine Lacey (The Sewanee Review, Spring, 2018)
You’ve been going through a lot, Sarah said on the phone.
Everyone kept saying this to me, that I had been going through a lot. I did not agree, yet I knew the “lot” to which she was making an inaccurate reference was how, in the last three months, I’d gotten married, filed for divorce, moved several times, quit my job, and driven to Montana, where I began working in a grocery store, stocking beans. Karen had called it The Blitz, though it’s not like anyone died. But Karen is, by most accounts, my mother, so she has a certain perverted perspective on what I do, this thing that was once in her body, now walking around the world, messing things up.
On my computer I have a Word document titled, simply, “Favorite Sentences.” It remains open, rarely closes. On my desk—or on the sofa or on the kitchen counter or on the floor, indented by one sharp dog claw and nibbled in the corner—is my navy blue LEUCHTTURM1917 bullet journal, the location for my handwritten notes on craft and theory, lists of books I want to preorder or recommend to friends, annotations on whatever I’m reading at the time, and many of the same sentences found in the Word document. Some two-dozen-plus passages from Catherine Lacey’s fiction reside in both mediums.
Several of those quotations come from “Family Physics,” a story that contains everything I love about Lacey’s writing. We open with dialogue that is so delightfully vague in its reference to some tragedy or another, the phrasing so deflated and familiar, only to have the narrator repeat the dialogue then disagree with its assessment.
The tone is immediately established: slightly detached, skeptical, a bit mystified but amusedly so. Lacey’s narrator makes no big fuss. She’s not exasperated or offended and only maybe a bit—a bit!—annoyed. And we can relate, can’t we? Who hasn’t been going through a lot at one point or another? She’s engaged our sense of empathy. Meanwhile, it’s the raising of that question, right there in the opening line and then repeated again, that pushes us to read further. What exactly has this person been going through? In my previous “Art of the Opening” essay on crafting a hook, I talk about how I find that so many successful narratives open with the formula of QUESTION + EMOTION. Here, we’ve got the question, and it’s the comical lack of emotion that garners our interest. Plus, we get tension in the form of the narrator’s disagreement.
So much is happening in only three sentences.
But that third sentence isn’t complete—not before it supplies the dirty details of this “lot” the narrator singles out. In a sentence that tumbles forward and forward and forward, Lacey gives us specificity, something I’m always seeking in submissions and asking for in edits. There is a contrast between the mundane and the extraordinary that is both humorous and unsettling. A marriage and a divorce in a short time span that ultimately leads us where? To stocking beans in a Montana grocery store.
So, Sarah was correct. Our narrator has been going through a lot. In one sentence we get both quick backstory and a sense of the conflict that sets the story into motion, an unwieldy menagerie of events working as a sort of inciting incident. This third sentence also provokes even more questions that propel the story forward, but not before Lacey finishes her opening by highlighting the bizarre elements hiding beneath the humdrum realities of everyday life. The dry, sardonic tone continues when our narrator points out that a woman named Karen has named this sequence of events “The Blitz, though it’s not like anyone died.” What does this framing imply about how the narrator views the events she’s experienced? While we might debate the psychology of this moment as it relates to the genuineness of our speaker’s commentary, there is no doubt she’s at least attempting to appear unbothered.
And who is Karen? “But Karen is, by most accounts, my mother.” There is the detachment, that sly little phrase contained by two commas. Then, we get the power of diction. Lacey might have chosen so many other words like biased or skewed or subjective; but, no, the mother’s perspective of her daughter is “perverted.” In another clever, acerbic choice of words, the narrator steps into her mother’s point of view in order to refer to herself as “this thing.” That uncanny moment I mentioned in the previous paragraph comes when Lacey reminds us that we’ve all inhabited the body of someone else only to later be unleashed upon the world and judged by the corporeal home that once held us.
During all this time that Lacey has been using elements like tone and hook and tension and style to craft a powerful opening, she’s also been working on characterization. We’re never told directly how our narrator feels about all of this. We’re not given her name or her age or her initial location—Lacey doesn’t tell us about the job this woman quit or the color of her hair or what kinds of books do or do not rest on her nightstand. We don’t know whether she went to trade school or inherited generational wealth or likes dogs. And yet, we’ve begun to know her. We know that she calls her mother by her first name, the state she chooses to run away to, the litany of endings she’s triggered in her own life.
It’s those endings that push me to keep reading. I don’t just want to make sense of them; I want to spend time with the woman who, through a combination of agency and circumstance, jettisons herself across the country to stand on a waxed floor lit by fluorescents, shelving canned goods. How does one arrive at a marriage, at a divorce? How does anyone grapple with being a daughter, a wife? Lacey’s stories provide no clean answers, no simple linear cause and effect. But my reward is the minutes I get to spend simultaneously splitting away from reality and diving deeper within my own memory, longing, regrets, and desires because nothing exists in a bubble. The story becomes mine just as it will become yours. The mother and Montana and divorce and Sarah’s voice at the other end of the line are both singular and universal. These items mutate, keep mutating, as does the story, as does my memory, myself, my life.
Ultimately, this story is a microcosm of what I love most about Lacey’s work. At the line level in both her short stories and her three novels there is often a cool spareness and conversational tone that gets interrupted with elegiac moments of poetic prose, with sentences that turn and amplify their rhythms, carrying you swiftly along. At times, her narrators express a directness that feels unperturbed despite creeping hints of existential dread—a nonchalance that looks squarely at the surrealism of life and keeps moving. Yet, every now and then their breath seems to reach you, a soft current against your own neck: a reminder that this character, like any real human being, is wholly unknowable and wild.
2. “Orientation Week” by Natalie Cornell (Lunch Ticket, Issue 5: Summer/Fall 2014)
In 1962 my parents packed four suitcases, one gray trunk with a brass lock, my stereo, my tennis racket (remnant of happier days and therefore a sign of their hope for my future), and me into our white Lincoln Continental. We headed up Route 301 to the University of Florida campus in Gainesville three hundred miles away.
I was going to have fun. Before I left, Uncle Harry said I envy you, Monica. Four years of leisure to study mankind and the universe. Uncle Harry never recovered from not going to college due to the depression. He supplemented his life with a complete set of Harvard classics. The red books lined his office shelves for years unopened. I know because eventually I inherited them, and except for the pages being brown with age, they were in perfect condition. Yet I knew he was sincere. My psychiatrist was less scholarly minded. He said, “What a great time you’re going to have at college, Monica, sitting around drinking cokes, going to frat parties, bull sessions until four in the morning. It’s going to be a great four years.”
If Lacey’s narrator is awash in sort of direct aloofness, then Cornell’s first-person protagonist possesses a sarcastic acerbity so thoroughly uninterested in its own astuteness that it creates a deadpan, relatable candor. “I was going to have fun,” says Monica. With a declaration like that, how could she not?
If you fail to give this opening paragraph the full attention it deserves, you might only notice the quick work it makes of grounding us in time and place. 1962. Florida. Off to college. But who is the subject of that first line? Not Monica. No. It’s her parents who pack away her belongings and, most notably, her. Part of the fun of language is how much work its various elements can accomplish in a small amount of space. Monica is rendered an object here, handled by her parents alongside her trunk, stereo, and tennis racket. And, like Lacey’s aside about her mother, doesn’t this moment tell you nearly everything you need to know not only about Monica’s relationship with her parents, but also about her attitude towards attending the University of Florida in Gainesville? Just like it’s Monica’s parents who are doing the packing, it’s also their hope, not Monica’s, being buoyed by the tennis racket in the parenthesis.
This parenthetical digression is also the opening’s main source of tension. The tennis racket is described as a “remnant of happier days,” which, of course, implies that the current situation isn’t so happy—and there’s our question in the formula of QUESTION + EMOTION. What happened to cause the fading of those happy days marked by tennis? And just as Lacey’s protagonist created intrigue via a lack of strong emotion, Monica’s emotional state seems to be one that will endure no bullshit.
It follows then that the line opening the second paragraph—“I was going to have fun”—might seem full of sarcasm or ominous foreshadowing, but later, at the start of the third paragraph, our narrator says she believes both her uncle and her psychiatrist that college will be “four years of leisure” and “a great four years,” or at least she believes they each believe this. But isn’t there inherent tension on the page thanks to everything we already know, along with our knowledge of who is touting these ideas of greatness? An uncle who “never recovered” from his missed college experience and a doctor who equates a “great time” with frat parties and drinking Coke. These are men substituting their own voices for the expectations of a young woman, and that alone should raise more than one red flag.
Just as Lacey’s list of tumultuous life events—marriage, divorce, quitting a job—works to raise more questions, so does Monica’s treatment by her psychiatrist. Why is she under his care? And why do the stakes feel so high when it comes to her college attendance? While Lacey’s narrator has some agency, Monica’s agency seems to be stripped away to a certain degree from the very first line of the story. Relatable? Yes.
I want to know what brought Monica to this moment in her life, and I want to know if she’ll uncover her own version of the “greatness” that’s being forced upon her. As with Lacey’s work, I don’t expect the answers to be tidy, but as I finish those opening paragraphs, I’m already feeling responsible for the outcome while a deluge of my own memories around Florida, college, mental health, and agency run in on me swiftly, and with undertow.
SUZANNE GROVE currently serves as the associate editor for CRAFT. Her fiction and poetry appear or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, Barren Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, No Tokens, Okay Donkey, The Penn Review, Porter House Review, Raleigh Review, XRAY, and elsewhere. She has also received honorable mention for her fiction appearing on Farrar, Straus & Giroux’s Work in Progress website. You can find her at SuzanneGrove.com.
Featured image by Enrico Mantegazza courtesy of Unsplash