Monday, August 01, 2005

Feels Like Sinning

I have no excuses. Certainly, it's been eternity since I last posted—eternity, apparently, beginning around midnight, July 27. What have I been doing? I played a lot of Splinter Cell and my bowstaff skills are coming along nicely. I even watched The Grudge at seven am one morning in a desperate bid to stay awake until it was time to go to work (yes, I'm THAT employee). Let me calmly and high-mindedly say I extremely unrecommend ever watching THAT movie while in a feverish state of sleep deprivation. Small children now terrify me. So does moving to Japan. Dammit, I did nothing with my time. I didn't even write more of my imaginary novel—which reminds me that I wrote a real novel once, and then found out someone else had already written it. Stupid Melville. Hands off my Moby!

But let's get to the serious stuff. Let's get to the blog. Let's get down with Robert Fulford in Tuesday's National Post. The man has a big essay (technically, little, and not an essay at all, but can't anyone be allowed to pleasingly exaggerate any more?) on the power of first words, first lines, first familiar phrases in our favourite novels. Fulford is eloquent, as usual turning not only a fine phrase, but directing appreciation to the fine phrases of others, namely Austen, Tolstoy, Dickens, and other, less famous luminaries. And Fulford makes an observation most of us, I think, have felt on re-reading Frank & Joe Hardy's Billionth Mystery Of The Smuggler's Peninsula Of Staggering Coincidences, Plus Chet Gets A New Haircut, which is, "If a book begins badly, there's little chance it will improve as it grinds on. (I've never put this selection theory to work, however; while possibly foolproof, it feels sinful.)".

First words (obviously) are more important than most any other words in the novel. But first lines, I'd like to add, are not so important that a good novel can't redeem the bad beginning or even mediocre middle. Exhibit A, I'd like to declare, would be my favourite novel in the English language, one of Dickens' best efforts, one of the greatest novels in the English language, which is rasing very high, very Great Expectations. Take a look at the beginning: "My father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip". Alright! I get it! The guy's name is Pip! Yes, it's an important first line, establishes context, identity, and a thousand other boring tasks. Get on with it, then. And the novel does, roaring through a great couple of early chapters until bogging down in London and the middle of Pip's young life among the usual Dickensian universe of grim eccentrics and oddsbodies. It's wonderful, readers, but it squelches, it undeniably squelches. Who cares? The last line of the book is as heartfelt a piece ofwriting as has ever been put to paper: "in her face and in her voice, she gave me the assurance that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be". That line was worth waiting for. That line shifts the whole book. That last line realigns the Dickensian universe, and sadness and suffering become so much more worthy of endurance than either could ever have been considered before.

Well, there are other examples, of course. Horror-writing is a rich field of last lines; the dénouement is all, here. Who is Edgar Allan Poe without the last line?—yes, yes, I've read the opening to "The Fall Of The House Of Usher"—have you read the last line of "The Tell-tale Heart"? And what about Koji Suzuki, who opened the modern horror classic Ring with a banal description of apartment buildings, but ended his novel with these memorable blocks of cliché: "Black clouds moved eerily across the skies. They slithered like serpents, hinting at the unleashing of some apocalyptic evil". I think of O. Henry, saving the turn-around-joke for the last line, and realize that humour walks shoulder to shoulder with horror when both wave the flag of the last line. And modern literature has not forgotten the respectable and ancient power of the final phrase, the fitting phrase for the eternal moment (as detailed by Dante, who, summing up the heart and motion of the universe, finished The Divine Comedy with "The love that moves the sun and other stars".Lionel Shriver ends her heartbreaking We Need To Talk About Kevin with pragmatic powerful prose, banal out of context, but speaking movingly of forgiveness and offering and love at the end of chapter after chapter of detailed familial hate and antipathy: "The sheets are clean". Or Connie Willis, who labours to open her books with the interesting sentence, but rarely suceeds in surpassing her first effort in her last line, except once, that line coming at the end of Lincoln's Dreams, when the hero realizes he was never the centre of the story, that he is only a sidekick, a servant, a burden, a loyal pet, and accepts his doom and loneliness, and identifies with General Lee's famous horse Traveller, saying, "I have picked up a nail".After last lines like these, there is no reason to write "Finis" or declare "The End". To have given up on books like these, like the novels listed here, would have been a sin against these novels and books, a sin against their authors, a sin against their fellow-readers, and more, a sin against yourself. Like packing for a journey and then never going, that is what giving up on these books is like; is the end of the journey worth the effort? Only the end of the journey will tell; only the end of the book will show.

Reading and Listening will be posted later. [Editor: Turns out, not so.]

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