Last week at the Books Inc. two blocks from my house (good news: there’s a bookstore two blocks from my house; bad news: it’s not a used bookstore), I flipped through the introduction to Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and then decided to buy it. Two reasons: he referred to himself as the “white sheep” in his non-college-educated family (a little self-congratulatory, but a clever inversion of an idiom nonetheless), and this line in response to being called “one of the major lyric voices of our time”:
“As Keanu Reeves, the Hawaiian balladeer, would say, ‘Whoa.’”
From these things I decided I liked him. It doesn’t take much. It’s like when you’re talking to a person for the first time and you find out what music they listen to, or which of your jokes they laugh at. First impressions matter. Same is true for writers.
When I began my lifelong quest to read every single great piece of literature ever written in the English language, I started at the Borders in Davis, CA. Not totally auspicious, but within walking distance to my college apartment. I guess I have a thing for walking distances. That Borders is gone now, as are all other Borders; in its place stands a Whole Foods. But I have the fondest of memories in that transformed space—aisles of overpriced grain products where the overpriced CDs used to be—because it’s where I started my relationships with several of my absolutest, positivest favorite authors, who I still to this day am madly in love with.
What I would do, is I would drift towards a title based on its name and its reputation and its book cover, and then I would get a sense of it from the back cover description, and then I would open to the first page and see if I liked what I read, if I saw the literary relationship going somewhere, if we were I guess verbally compatible. I readily admit this isn’t always the best way to find a great book. There have been plenty of first-pagers (as I call them) that turn out to be not-so-interesting, and plenty of slow-starters that have become all-time favorites.
But sometimes first impressions are correct.
Here’s my first-pagers. Emphasis on the words I loved the most.
The Satanic Verses
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won’t cry? How to win the darling’s love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again…” Just before dawn one winter’s morning, New Year’s Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky.
“I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you,” and thusly and so beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night. “To the devil with your tunes,” the words hanging crystalline in the iced white night, “in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me these infernal noises now.”
Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohé, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.”
I was transfixed by this opening. So magical realist, so fantastical, so virtuosic! Two men falling from the sky? The one, Gibreel Farishta, a flamboyant, histrionic Bollywood actor flapping around and singing; the other, Saladin Chamcha, a fastidious and completely assimilated British Asian who wants to fall straight down in peace. Already hinting at grand themes of faith, country, catharsis, transcendence, which are further explored as Gibreel begins to turn into an angel, and Saladin into a devil.
Nowadays, I like my magical realism a little less hit-you-over-the-head, but Rushdie immediately got major props for creativity. The whole first chapter was an exhilarating dream sequence of a twenty-nine-thousand-foot drop which, incidentally, the two men survive. I devoured this book. Then read Midnight’s Children, which I like even better. Is genius. Also recommended: Shame; East, West; The Enchantress of Florence (less substantial but still gorgeous, gorgeous words).
All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.
I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.
Kind of a polar opposite, stylistically, from Rushdie—Vonnegut has the most spare, straightforward, ironic of mid-century American writing styles. If given the choice, I tend to favor the virtuosic over the concise, but sometimes there’s beauty in sparseness. Sometimes there’s a lot of weight in what’s not said. That’s what I felt with Vonnegut.
It starts right off with a question: how much of this is real? How will I know whether he’s making things up, overdramatizing? (As I now understand it, most of the war parts are true. Most of the parts with time travel and Tralfamagorians: not true.) Then there’s a flip observation: there’s probably a lot of human bone in the ground at Dresden. Pain, trauma, horror without measure wrapped up in a Vonnegut’s dryly humorous semi-sci-fi tale using very few words, because some things you can’t really express. Boiled down to its essence in the refrain: “So it goes.”
This is still my favorite Vonnegut. Also recommended: Cat’s Cradle; Welcome to the Monkey House (short stories).
It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
Yossarian was in the hospital with pain in his liver that fell just short of being jaundice. The doctors were puzzled by the fact that it wasn’t quite jaundice. If it became jaundice they could treat it. If it didn’t become jaundice and went away they could discharge him. But this just being short of jaundice all the time confused them.
Each morning they came around, three brisk and serious men with efficient mouths and inefficient eyes, accompanied by brisk and serious Nurse Duckett, one of the ward nurses who didn’t like Yossarian. They read the chart at the foot of the bed and asked impatiently about the pain. They seemed irritated when he told them it was exactly the same.
“Still no movement?” the full colonel demanded.
The doctors exchanged a look when he shook his head.
“Give him another pill.”
Nurse Duckett made a note to give Yossarian another pill, and the four of them moved along to the next bed. None of the nurses liked Yossarian. Actually, the pain in his liver had gone away, but Yossarian didn’t say anything and the doctors never suspected. They just suspected that he had been moving his bowels and not telling anyone.
Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.
The first page of Catch-22 was just a total WTF, and so was the rest of the first chapter, and I liked that. Absurd, inane, hilarious, confusing, somewhat disingenuous, as if the whole narrative is playing a trick on you. And yet—like Slaughterhouse Five—the irony masks a core of pain and horror, similarly experienced firsthand by Joseph Heller (is he Yossarian?) during his service in Italy. So funny, and then horrible things happen (image that stands out in my head is the bottom half of a person standing on a raft offshore). And the Snowden chapters! So heartbreaking. The entire mood is captured in the problematic of the title: one of those “if I don’t laugh I’ll cry” situations.
This is the only Heller I’ve read, so I can’t in good faith call him “one of my favorite authors,” though I think this book is brilliant. He’s something of a literary one-hit wonder. Though if you are so inclined I believe there is a sequel.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
The Holy Grail of books. My most favoritest of favoritest authors. The ecstasy of Nabokov’s prose is evident from the opening lines of his greatest, and for obvious reasons most controversial, work, the deconstruction of the syllables of Lolita and the many names of Dolores Haze, not to mention the first glimpse into the disturbed psychology of erudite narrator and sickening sex offender Humbert Humbert. His words are unmatched. He has the uncanny ability to make me feel like I’m not reading but seeing, at the same time that I am hyperaware of each and every one of his verbal feats.
Turning to the second page, I was further enamored by his sense of humor:
“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three…”
That parenthetical made me laugh. Nabokov may paint beautiful, intensely detailed narrative pictures, but when he doesn’t want to waste time on description, he throws out two words and gives you everything you need to know. “Picnic. Lightning.” Bam.
As may have been mentioned on this blog before, Lolita started an eight-year relationship (still going strong) with Vladimir that has taken me through Ada, or Ardor, Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and his brilliant Short Stories, and I’m currently reading his enchanting Speak, Memory—probably the best memoir I’ve yet to encounter. I don’t use the L-word too often (or maybe I do, but usually for un-serious things), but I. Love. Him.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath
First line: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
First line(s): “‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’ There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry.”
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides
First line: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”
There’s more. It’s a lifelong quest.