The great American contemporary novelist Don DeLillo had this to say about the spark of inspiration as he was receiving the first award called the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction back in 2013. “Sometimes, it can be a single sentence,” he told an interviewer, going on to describe one that had been ricocheting around in his head for some time. “The sentence hit me in such a direct way that I felt that I had to go on and justify its existence. And so it’s the inspiration for a novel.”
Ten years ago, DeLillo already was the highly lauded author of “White Noise” (1985), “Underworld” (1997) and 13 other novels, and a dive into his subsequent output suggests that the sentence he was talking about then most likely opened “Zero K,” brought out by Simon and Schuster in 2016. It begins: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.”
As it turns out, that line is spoken by a father who wants to orchestrate his own demise to a son who is appalled by such a notion, and the book contains the further observation: “We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner?”
Thought-provoking, no? And surely an intriguing way to draw a reader in. While some famous first lines serve as simple introduction (“Call me Ishmael.”) or contradictory scene-setting (“It was the best of times it was the worst of times …”), I as a reader am most delighted to get yanked into a narrative almost against my will.
Such was the case with that witty Brit Ian McEwan, who issued me a challenge by daring to riff on “Hamlet” in his 2016 novella “Nutshell” – I mean who can match Shakespeare, much less top him? But he set his tale with the young prince still in the womb, listening in as Gertrude and Claudius plot his father’s murder. So I had to keep going after giggling over “So here I am, upside down in a woman,” and I was indeed rewarded for the effort.
Here then, taken from my own bookshelves, are some other examples of novels with first sentences that practically dare you not to keep reading, presented in order of their publication, for lack of a more compelling strategy.
“I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”
This “Rashomon”-like beginning opens Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel, “Ethan Frome,” piquing reader’s curiosity about the mysterious, limping man in a New England village in the ensuing tale.
“On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below.”
Thornton Wilder won the Pulitzer Prize with his second novel, 1927’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” in which a Franciscan monk anxiously sets about researching the identities of those five lost souls in an attempt to discover if there is meaning to life beyond our own individual wills.
“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically.”
All the gasps and bosom-clutching that took place over “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” in 1928 missed the essential point. In setting his controversial novel on the far edge of World War I, D.H. Lawrence was writing about our transition into an era with a new aesthetic and evolving moral values.
“Where’s my panties at? I asks him.”
OK, that is a fairly salacious opener, but which of us doesn’t want to know the answer? That’s the raucous opening to a 2003 work, that also bears an eye-opening title, “Getting Mother’s Body,” the hilarious debut novel from Pulitzer Prize-winner for drama Suzan-Lori Parks. It follows an unwed but hugely pregnant young woman on her cross-country trek to unearth a corpse that may have a treasure trove of jewels buried with it.
“You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine did not help my concentration.”
Bay Area author Rabih Alameddine’s narrator in 2013’s “An Unnecessary Woman” introduces herself with the unvarnished frankness that suffuses the entire slim novel. One of the most memorable characters in modern fiction, she’s irascible, grumpy, clear-eyed and completely endearing. I wanted her to be my next-door neighbor.
“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.”
Paul Beatty delivers that jolt head-on in “The Sellout,” a savagely satirical and devastatingly funny novel about race that won the Man Booker Prize the year after its 2015 publication. That first sentence leads into a graph containing a litany of the other crimes, petty and otherwise, that he also has never committed, and ending with him musing about why he is sitting in custody, hands cuffed behind his back. His offense? Something so outrageous you just have to read on to discover.
“When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.”
Madeline Miller casts her spell from the very first page of “Circe,” the utterly absorbing 2018 novel on the life of the sorceress of ancient myth whose magical powers included transforming men into animals. It’s largely a sympathetic portrayal, one that lays bare Circe’s ambivalence over whether to accept her identity as a minor goddess or to embrace humanity instead.
“First, I got myself born.”
What the young Appalachian protagonist of Barbara Kingsolver’s “Demon Copperhead” first has to say and how he says it is significant, because it conveys a strong sense of agency, and young Demon, though beset by a multitude of problems, including poverty, child abuse, drug addiction and more, ultimately does indeed drive his own destiny. Kingsolver’s novel, which shared this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction with Hernan Diaz’s “Trust,” is a proudly acknowledged updating of “David Copperfield,” so it seems appropriate to note that Charles Dickens began that classic with an even simpler “I am born.”
Curiosity drove me to check out this year’s other Pulitzer winner’s first page, and I was both amazed and amused to find an opening sentence10 times as long as Kingsolver’s and expressing what seems to be a polar opposite theme. Diaz writes: “Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny for itself out of little more than dross.”
A free fest for book lovers: An annual event since first lady Laura Bush launched it back in 2001, the National Book Festival is set to take place at the Washington Convention Center from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Aug. 12, with more than 70 authors, poets and illustrators signed up to present. Those of us who will not be making the trek to D.C. to participate in person can check out live-streamed events of the day on the Library of Congress website (loc.gov), where all of the programs will eventually be available shortly after the festival concludes. Some highlights include the actor Elliot Page, talking about his history in Hollywood and his gender transformation from Ellen to Elliot as covered in the memoir “Pageboy,” and “Lincoln in the Bardo” author George Saunders, who will be talking about his latest short story collection, “Liberation Day,” as well as some of his other works. Saunders, by the way, already a Booker Prize winner, has just been named the 2023 recipient of the award that DeLillo was given in 2013 and will be handed it by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden on festival day.
From page to screen: If you haven’t already read Bonnie Garmus’ best-seller “Lessons in Chemistry,” you have just a couple of months to do so before Apple TV introduces us to its eight-episode adaptation, starring Brie Larson as cooking show host Elizabeth Zott. The series drops its first two episodes on Oct. 13, with subsequent shows airing on Fridays through Nov. 24. Here’s a brief teaser: https://youtu.be/QOu7UOXHSsc.
Hooked on Books is a monthly column by Sue Gilmore on current literary buzz and can’t-miss upcoming book events. Look for it here every last Thursday of the month.