“It was love at first sight.”
Surely one of the best first lines in the history of the novel – particularly in partnership with the second sentence.
“The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.”
(Catch-22, natch.) And another favourite, very different in style:
“A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate. The hour, some little time before sunset, and the place, the West Barricade, at the very spot where, a decade later, a proud tyrant raised an undying monument to the nation’s glory and his own vanity.”
(The Scarlet Pimpernel. Grandiose and glorious.)
There’s a great mystique about the opening lines of a story. In a world of fragmented technology and, well, the Daily Mail, the opening line seems more important than ever to grab the attention of the time-poor, screen-obsessed urban denizens of today. But even at school, writing our heinous short stories, my teachers were united: you needed a first sentence of mystery and power, which smacked you in the face. One opening sentence I read this summer is more famous than the entire novel it comes from. There’s a parlour game in which everyone writes a pretend first line for a novel and they’re all read out with the real first line included, when people have to guess what the first line is.
With all the pressure that is placed on it, it’s a wonder a writer ever gets beyond the first sentence.
Standing against the tide of this immense pressure to grab the reader round the throat and not let go until the Acknowledgements is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. In the words of the New York Times review of the novel, it “will sneak up on you.” A novel of huge poise and exactness of language, it grows upon you, delicately. Told from a series of different perspectives, the start is ponderous and, if well written, hardly enthralling. At no point does the tempo decidedly change, but as you read it extends its tendrils around you, pulling you closer and closer until you’re right against the heartbeat of New York City. The format means you’re progressively made aware of the links between the narrators, but this is done with admirable, almost languorous pace, slowly uncovering the links. There’s no mystery solved – there are no ‘twists’ as such – but the novel progresses towards a manner of resolution and completion with stately grace, stepping back without a breath to find the whole intricately interwoven.
The message, put baldly, is of connection – there’s a 6-degrees of separation element to it. However, at the same time as this move together, the novel is undoubtedly a work of duality. The central motif is that of a high wire walker walking between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in 1973 (inspired by Philippe Petit’s famous act.) These twin towers act as the first of many instance of equal but opposing forces constantly laid side by side in this work, most importantly life and death. The very opening section describes the viewers of the walk split into 2 camps – those wanting him to fall and those wanting him to ascend still higher into the air. Death is never far from the pages, making each continued life a miracle as awe-inspiring as the walker’s gravity-defying stunt. All lives in Let the Great World Spin are fighting against this immense downward pull, and not all survive.
So what’s the first line of a work this subtle and self-possessed?
“Those who saw him hushed.”
With its quiet power, assured control, and ability to catch you off guard, it’s the perfect start to, and summation of, this elegant work.