When Your Story Opening Does Nothing But Blow Smoke

Image: blank paper in a typewriter

Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress.

First Page

It was midnight when I sat down to write my masterpiece. I would include everything and nothing. In so doing, I would transform my personality, distilling it into some immortal work of art, created by me, for me. I would be the vatic chronicler of my own mind-windings, the perambulations of a brain seeking egress from banality. Either it (my personality) would flower, bloom and expand like some kaleidoscopic balloon, or it would vanish entirely from the earth, allowing whatever creativity was trapped inside my brain to surge forth unchecked like a rabid river. Either way, I would sooner or later have on my hands something worthwhile, a collection of letters, words and phrases that meant something, meant something powerful, did justice to all my dreams, longings and hopes.

Of course, I didn’t really believe in anything that was immortal. Nor did I think that anything I wrote would somehow supply me with a final, terminal quenching of my desire. But a part of me wanted to believe in such a possibility, the same part of me that wanted to believe in God, even though I knew it was only a morbid consolation. I wanted to believe in these myths, while at the same time I was skeptical of them.

But, either way, I poised my pen above the paper. I was prepared to strike, to draw fresh blood, to finally write the masterpiece whose possibility and potential gnawed at the gnarled roots of my soul, even while I mocked the hope and set it on a realistic table to see its worried corners and haunted dents. My experience, I said to myself, in all its mortifying banality, would serve me now. How, I wasn’t so sure. But it seemed to me that experience was like a landscape; that the sun shone on it and the moon flowed down it like anything else, and it was up to me to capture those moments when something interesting happened, when the flowers bloomed or the tulips cracked.

So then and there, I wrote down the first words, the unremarkable, terrible words. These words were profoundly un-sublime. They were mired in the juice of the mundane, fairly squeaking with a lack of originality. I will not repeat them here, but suffice it to say they were mawkish and uninspired, which I found confusing, for the fit that produced them seemed to me then to be very inspired, somehow forceful and effervescent.

First-Page Critique

Older readers may remember The Honeymooners, and Ed Norton, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason)’s sidekick, the vest-and-tee-shirt wearing municipal sewer employee played to a fare-thee-well by Art Carney. In one of his better schticks, Norton would confront some trivial task with extravagant overtures, loosening his shoulders, licking his lips, rubbing his hands and rolling his sleeves (or their equivalent, Norton being sleeveless), approaching the task like a pool player trying for a three-ball shot the hard way, until finally an exasperated Ralph Kramden bellowed, “Will you cut that out!”

Reading this impressively written, ornately empty opening, I feel like Ralph Kramden, or like Dorothy confronting the man she believes is The Wizard of Oz, when in fact she’s witnessing a fraud operated by a humbug. In The Wizard of Oz the sham is achieved with smoke, flames, a thunderous basso profundo, and 1939’s cinematic equivalent of a hologram. In this first page the smokescreen is achieved through language as oozing and pungent as an overripe Camembert (“gnawed at the gnarled roots of my soul,” “a landscape that the sun shined on”), language designed as much to camouflage a lack of content as to convey it. The purple prose is amusing (“[My words] were mired in the juice of the mundane, fairly squeaking with a lack of originality”). The narrator is blowing smoke, but it’s witty, colorful smoke.

I’m reminded of another smoke-blowing opener:

“Listen to me. I will tell you the truth about a man’s life. I will tell you the truth about his love for women. That he never hates them. Already you think I’m on the wrong track. Stay with me. Really—I’m a master of magic.

“Do you believe a man can truly love a woman and constantly betray her? Never mind physically, but betray her in his mind, in the very ‘poetry of his soul.’ Well, it’s not easy, but men do it all the time.

“Do you want to know how women can love you, feed you that love deliberately to poison your body and mind simply to destroy you? And out of passionate love choose not to love you anymore? And at the same time dizzy you with an idiot’s ecstasy? Impossible? That’s the easy part.

“But don’t run away. This is not a love story.

“I will make you feel the painful beauty of a child, the animal horniness of the adolescent male, the yearning suicidal moodiness of the young female. And then (here’s the hard part) show you how time turns man and woman around full circle, exchanged in body and soul.

“And then of course there is TRUE LOVE. Don’t go away! It exists or I will make it exist. I’m not a master of magic for nothing. Is it worth what it cost? And how about sexual fidelity? Does it work? Is it love? Is it even human, that perverse passion to be with only one person? And if it doesn’t work, do you still get a bonus for trying? Can it work both ways? Of course not, that’s easy. And yet—”…

The more this narrator of Mario Puzo’s Fools Die exhorts this reader to “stay with [him],” to not “run away,” the more inclined I am to head for the hills. That the author’s previous novel was the mega-bestselling The Godfather changes nothing for me. For me this first page is all foam and no beer, less amusingly so than the first page that precedes it. Meant to pull me in, Puzo’s hard sell puts me off.

Puzo is hardly the first novelist to roll his sleeves up in public. Somerset Maugham begins The Razor’s Edge (1944), his most ambitious novel, thus:

I have never begun a novel with more misgiving. If I call it a novel it is only because I don’t know what else to call it. I have little story to tell and I end neither with a death nor a marriage. Death ends all things and so is the comprehensive conclusion of a story, but marriage finishes it very properly too and the sophisticated are ill-advised to sneer at what is by convention termed a happy ending. It is a sound instinct of the common people which persuades them that with this all that needs to be said is said. When male and female, after whatever vicissitudes you like, are at last brought together they have fulfilled their biological function and interest passes to the generation that is to come. But I leave my reader in the air. This book consists of my recollections of a man with whom I was thrown into close contact only at long intervals, and I have little knowledge of what happened to him in between. I suppose that by the exercise of invention I could fill the gaps plausibly enough and so make my narrative more coherent; but I have no wish to do that. I only want to set down what I know of my own knowledge.

Maugham spends four more long paragraphs—all of Chapter One—rolling up his sleeves, clearing his throat, parsing his apprehensions with respect to writing the novel we are about to read, before getting down to brass tacks with Chapter Two. Could the first chapter of The Razor’s Edge be cut without harming vital plot tissue? Yes, if plot is all that counts. But with his first chapter Maugham is up to something else. He’s gaining a sense of authority through making himself human and vulnerable, swirling brandy in a padded chair in his fire-lit parlor: the author cozying up to the reader, earning the reader’s trust (that he happens to be Somerset Maugham doesn’t hurt).

Another kind of intimacy is established within the first sleeve-rolling paragraphs of Michael Faber’s 2002 historical novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. It begins:

Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.

It takes Faber’s narrator six more paragraphs—as long as Maugham—to bring us to an event, or rather to a place, Church Lane, “the sort of street where even the cats are thin and hollow-eyed for want of meat, the sort of street where men who profess to be labourers never seem to labour and so-called washer-women rarely wash.” From this seamy street we are escorted through the back door of a squalid rooming house, down a “claustrophobic corridor” reeking “of slowly percolating carpet and soiled linen,” up a flight of rotten stairs to a room in which a prostitute squats over a large ceramic bowl.

Unlike Maugham’s cozy first paragraphs, Faber’s achieve a tense intimacy between reader and narrator, such that, however reluctantly, the former is compelled to follow the latter into the most repugnant venues of Victorian London society. As the reviewer for The Guardian noted, “Playing on the omniscience of the … narrator, Faber leads us through his labyrinthine story in the come-hither voice of a brothel madam, breaching the boundaries of voyeurism within the first few pages by bidding us to slide into bed beside a prostitute.” Before doing so, however, first Faber gets the reader into bed with his narrator.

While the opening to Maugham’s novel plants the seeds of his story, and Faber’s delivers us into a prostitute’s boudoir while immersing us in its seamy Victorian London setting, beyond the anti-climax delivered by its last paragraph it’s hard for me to see what story our first page may be setting up for us. Perhaps that’s why, despite the amusingly overripe diction, it feels empty. It would help to be given some clue as to what is at stake for the narrator as he (let’s assume he’s a man) prepares to pen his “masterpiece.” What if he can’t write it? Obviously it matters to him. But what would make it matter to us? Instead we get three long paragraphs of the narrator telling us he wants (for no particular reason) to write a masterpiece, followed by a short one wherein he fails to do so. If there’s a potential story in there somewhere about the extremes to which one man will go to achieve literary fortune and fame, how those extremes are met and the consequences that arise from them, it’s been left out of the sandwich, leaving us with two slices of bread, a lettuce leaf, and some mustard. Empty calories. Sleeve-rolling, and not much more.

Your First Page Selgin

A final famous bit of sleeve-rolling:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Having acquainted us with his miserable attitude, from there Holden Caulfield dives straight into his story “about this madman stuff that happened to [him] around last Christmas …”. A good rule-of-thumb regarding sleeve-rolling: a little goes a long way.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

Note: The publisher of Your First Page is offering free shipping if you order the book directly from their site. Use code YFPfreeship.

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