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. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.
I sink deep into Scott’s couch and travel back thirty years to the duplex townhouse above the freeway. The one Sam and I rented after our house in Santa Cruz burned down.
The committee asks me about the fire. I guess I need to talk about it. I haven’t spoken out loud since the limp hoses were reeled back onto their drums, and one of the big sweaty firemen told us we were lucky to be alive.
“We expected to be pulling corpses outa here,” he says.
“Thank you for coming,” I whisper.
Just when we think we are so special. So smart. So lucky. Sam is on his way to a Ph.D. in Literature; I am scheduled to interview for a teaching job. Dad’s wedding gift buys us a very hip little Fiat Spyder convertible, British Racing Green. We live in the guesthouse attached to the garage of a popular English Professor. His wife takes me under her wing, shows me how to bake her signature New England sandwich bread. Harriet is a solid 5’11”, towering over the dough as she kneads and punches it into the proper consistency.
“Now, your turn,” she smiles.
I take her place at the counter. I try to bully the dough the way she does. I glance around for a step stool. Worn out with squeezing, I step aside so she can finish up. She chatters about baking bread from scratch since she was a little girl. Chop wood. Carry water. Take notes.
After the fire, these rooms are reduced to a six hundred square foot pile of smoldering stuff we used to care about. The walls are still standing, but blistered and black. My mother’s first batch of original oil paintings claim a spot in one of the layers of stinking rubble. She left them with us on her sudden return to Spain. The charred canvasses curl like French crepes.
We tour the Salvador Dali landscape of our former digs. The floor-to-ceiling shelves of classic writings are now soggy blackened globs of pulp. They have toppled into a jagged heap of literature. Humpty Dumpty.
The rotary telephone is solid again now, after melting into the silverware drawer. Spear-shaped timbers have pierced through quilts and mattresses and are lodged in the dog’s favorite spot under the bed. Clothes are welded together in the closet. My beloved Navy Pea Coat is slumped over my leather boots, until we poke it with a curtain rod. Then it disintegrates.
The stench is everywhere and deep. Burnt wet carpet. Burnt wet books. Burnt wet upholstery. Grotesque bricks of fabrics and nasty plastics. High on the kitchen counter, two scorched and petrified loaves of New England homemade bread.
We don’t have a thing to wear, literally.
As children most of us had them, a nest of little painted wooden dolls that opened, one after another, to reveal an ever-smaller doll within, until we arrived at the ultimate doll —typically an infant carved from a single piece of wood. Russian (“matryoshka”) dolls, they’re called. Beyond reiterating themselves, they serve no real purpose, which is what makes them so delightfully droll.
With one crucial difference, this first page of a memoir is structured like one of those Russian dolls. Here the hierarchy is reversed, with the nested “dolls” (read: scenes) becoming bigger and more substantial as we pass through them, starting with the least substantial scene of all, the one conveyed by the first sentence that finds us sinking “deep” into a couch with our narrator. No sooner am I settled into that cozy couch than it’s pulled out from under me, with the narrator (and me with her) transported “back thirty years to the duplex townhouse above the freeway. The one Sam and I rented after our house in Santa Cruz burned down.” As transitions go, it’s as jarring as the one that turned poor Gregor Samsa into a giant beetle in his bed.
But there are more transitions—more Russian dolls—to come. In fact no sooner are we relocated to that townhouse than we’ve left it for another setting in which the narrator responds to questions posed to her by a committee—presumably at an inquest of some sort occasioned by the fire. Though the venue of the inquiry isn’t given, it’s not likely to have been in that townhouse. Leaving me to wonder—where are we now?
The “bread baking scene” itself is no sooner introduced than it gives way to a scene shortly after the fire, when the narrator (accompanied by someone, presumably Sam), surveys the destruction, with its “blistered and black” walls, the charred canvases of her mother’s oil paintings “curl[ed] like French crepes.”
The description of the aftermath of the fire is extremely vivid and effective. I see those charred walls; I smell the sour ashes. Anyone who has lived through a house fire never forgets what it feels like to sift through the remains, the evidence of a lived life reduced to soggy ashes. With its acrid stench and burned sodden upholstery, this scene is so well-rendered (the charred clothes welded together in the closet), so sensuously specific in its inventory of tragic loss, it easily overwhelms all the halfheartedly engaged quasi-scenes that came before—the bread-baking, the committee/inquiry, the dialogue with the “big sweaty” fireman, moments that pass too quickly to leave much of an impression. As for the narrator sinking into that couch, who—having reached the bottom of this page—will still remember that?
The difference between this smartly written opening and Russian dolls is that ultimately it does give us something substantial. It’s the scenes leading up to the fire-aftermath scene that feel (relatively) empty. Why not plunge us straight into that aftermath scene, the one fully engaged scene offered by this opening? If the author wants to nest that scene in a more recent one in which the event is recalled—to frame it—that’s fine. But then there should be a greater investment in the frame (narrator sinking into couch or responding to questions at an inquest) as well.
A final note and a nit-pick:
If for whatever reason you’re determined to transition readers quickly through various scenes occurring at discordant times, skillful handling of tenses, and particularly of the no-longer-taught past perfect or pluperfect tense, becomes vital. If the primary scene—the moment from which the past is being looked back from—is present tense, then all moments being looked back upon should (probably, logically) be written in the past or the past perfect. Otherwise we court confusion as in this opening, where all scenes past and present are flattened onto the same present tense plane.
Nit-pick: Often writers tag dialogue with something like “she smiled” or “he laughed,” as if dialogue can be “laughed” or “smiled” (it’s not; it’s spoken). That it’s done all the time by reputable writers in published books makes it no less objectionable—to me.
“Now, your turn,” she said, smiling.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)