First Sentences and the Limits of Story

Oh geez, you’re thinking, not another ingenuous “craft” post from some unknown writer on the internet.  Well, not quite anyway.

I see that for some reason the LRB ran another review of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (I perused it once; like all sociology-of-art, it’s amusing enough in the way of gossip but doesn’t go to the heart of things), thus displacing Elif Batuman’s notorious stemwinder (I read it aloud  to my wife; we laughed and laughed) with a piece by A-lister Fredric Jameson.  Old-boyism?  Sexism?  Whatever, I can’t read Jameson’s piece because it’s behind their paywall.  I hope at least that Fred (all the tenurati call him “Fred”; it’s a standard grad-student joke) continues, as a good Adornian, to be severe against positivist/empiricist populism.  Did he not once call Pierre Bourdieu the greatest warrant for anti-intellectualism in our time?

Ads Without Products (nice guy, I corresponded with him once; I think, hint-hint, that he’d like my book!) posts an excerpt, in which Jameson says about Hemingway/Carver exactly what you might deduce he would say about them if you thought about it for a minute.  I like Jameson, but he’s not exactly a surprise a minute.  Once a friend was staying at my place, and he seemed irritated that I was making him watch Gilmore Girls repeats, so I entertained him (he never was tempted by Marxism) with an airtight Jamesonian reading of Lorelei, Rory, et al.  I can probably reproduce it if anybody’s curious.

But what I wanted to say about first sentences is this.  Underneath Fred’s take on the MFA situation, a reader (from my hometown of dear, dirty Pittsburgh, no less) writes in to complain:

Jameson’s account of McGurl’s triads and dialectics doesn’t explain why the first sentences of so many stories in the Best American series follow the same formula. Start with the words ‘when’ or ‘after’; mention the first name of a character; dangle a pronoun with no antecedent; drop one heavy symbol or allusion; and use vaguely abstract phrasing to lay out a fairly banal situation.

Reader, I was mortified.  For the first sentence of—what else?—The Ecstasy of Michaela (Kindle, Nook, Kobo) goes like this: “When Michaela’s father called to tell her that her mother had at best a few days to live, she hesitated over whether or not to go to the hospital to say good-bye.”  At least I skipped the pronoun with no antecedent (I could have gone with “called to tell her that she was dying,” which would have been cute).  Heavy allusion?  Well, there’s one in the title, so another in the first sentence would be overkill.  (The title of chapter 1, incidentally, is a fairly light allusion to the title of an issue of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing—not one of the better ones, though.)

Happily, another LRB reader came to my rescue by slyly listing a bunch of first sentences with “when” or “after” constructions, as if to prove the Pittsburgher’s point, and then surprising us all with the truth:

The only trouble is, none of those openings – by Graham Greene, Katherine Mansfield, J.G. Ballard, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad – was ‘cobbled together in the workshops that are the subject of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, by writers who’ve come after Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates’. The problem of first-sentence uniformity, if it is a problem, may have less to do with creative writing programmes (whatever else may be wrong with them) than with the constraints of the short story as a form: you’ve only got a few thousand words so you try to get the who, the when and the where down as quickly as possible. The fault may be Chekhov’s as much as anyone’s: ‘During my stay in the district of S. I often used to go to see the watchman Savva Stukatch, or simply Savka, in the kitchen gardens of Dubovo.’ Though Kafka didn’t help: ‘Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.’ But then again, ‘when’ is also the first word of The Canterbury Tales.

Vindicated!  If it’s good enough for Chaucer, Chekhov, and Kafka, who are we to complain about poor Michaela? 

Here’s my speculation on the ubiquity of the “when” and the “after.”  The point of a story is that something out of the way has happened, something worth telling.  A steady state has been interrupted.  When he got used to his life, it changed.  After she thought she had it figured out, X, Y, and Z made her think again.  When this happened, that happened.  After it changed, it changed again. 

If it’s banal, blame God, not man, for it is the very structure of life.  Call it the banality of surprise.  This is why story is never enough, is finally a bit of a bore—pace dear Fred, with his plangent keening Hegelian lament over the grave of grand narrative—and what justifies its necessary and enabling tension with ornament, form, style, gargoyles, tapestries, tableaux, friezes, digression, parentheses, jargons, silence, and all the other actual glories of life and literature.  To which I hope, accused of empurpling my patches as I’ve been, to have made some contribution.

It is folly itself to judge by first sentences.  I give you my first paragraph, and please judge for yourself.

When Michaela’s father called to tell her that her mother had at best a few days to live, she hesitated over whether or not to go to the hospital to say good-bye. In the end, she went: it had been five years since she’d last been inside the hospital. Walking the long, white corridors that curved into still more corridors, listening to the beeps and whirrs of machines that breathed for people or fed them, inhaling the mingled odors of antiseptic and piss that lingered in the empty spaces, eavesdropping on the tired and cynical gossip exchanged from nurse to nurse in cigarette-straitened voices, Michaela nearly returned to her drugged, post-accident delusion that the hospital was a vast city, the size of the world almost, where she would have to spend the rest of her days, padding in a backless paper gown down chill, immaculate hallways, forever.