grist

 

Saturday, February 05, 2005
Footracing the opening lines: Now that you've had plenty of time to reflect, here are my choices for the good and the ugly. (Note: I am making no comment on the excellence or lack of it in the stories, no aspersions on authors, genres, publishers, the merits of leafy vegetables, the bullies from the playgrounds of my childhood, etc.--just the openings).

First, the schadenfreude:
Budgel Wolfscale, a telegraph clerk from Missouri on his way to Montana to search for the yellow metal, stopped at a Wyoming road ranch one day in 1898 for a supper of fried venison and coffee, heard there was good range.

First, the name is so absurd as to be impossible to overcome, no matter how excellent the line or the story. It just stops you dead. Unless the story is now about the burdens of ridiculous names, I have lost my trust in the author's choices already (even given the likely historical accuracy of it--truth beyond plausibility does not engage me). And the sentence's sins are compounded by the careless, pointless "yellow metal". This doesn't strike me as a vital tonal choice--just an evasion that makes us do a little bit of unnecessary processing to no end.

Runner-up:
Once they were out in the street, Grace, his dog, paid no attention to John Hillman, unless she wanted to range farther than her leash permitted.

Man/dog relationship nuance does not drive me into a story. This one's virtues may lie further in, but the drama of the leash is not starting me out strongly.

Now, the best, or the better anyway--I confess that this exercise made me a litle too aware of the strain in all of these lines and I think my praise of them is still the measured praise of craft, rather than the gush of enthusiasm.

The Kashigawa district, two hours from the Endos' home in Tokyo, was an isolated farming community with two claims to distinction: indigenous harrier monkeys up in the hills, and a new restaurant--Fireside Rations--that served "rice" made from locally grown yams.

The odd set of images--harrier monkeys have grabbed me already, and then the rice from yams--and these as the primary marks of distinction--provokes a set of questions about each (why rice from yams? is harrier a description of behavior or a name? Both?) and then about their connection and impending intersection--I'm starting to dread the potential for a restaurant overrun with screeching monkeys flinging yams. I like a subtext of mayhem to keep me reading.

Runner-up:
The weather had absolutely nothing to do with it--though the rain had been falling off and on throughout the day and the way the gutters were dripping made me feel as if despair were the mildest term in the dictionary--because I would have gone down to Daggett's that afternoon even if the sun were shining and all the fronds of the palm trees were gilded with light.

What I like in this line is the way he uses language to create a range of moods (abrupt? yes, but I think it works). The "despair were the mildest term in the dictionary" is a little mawkish, but the bad to lovely transition brings me into the story--I'm curious about what ground this emotional range will lead us into.

Favorites? Disagree with my choices?



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