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Great First Lines

“Running out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be.”

First line of Rabbit is Rich, the third in Updike’s four-book saga about the life and times of everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

After a sentence like that, how you can you not read on to find out who or what’s running out of gas? In case you’re wondering: “The fucking world is running out of gas.” It’s 1979, and the shortage is both real and metaphorical.

There are moments when I need the inspiration that comes from reading the opening lines of great novels. I tend to respond most to those that thrust me in the middle of something, so that I have no choice but to read a few more sentences, if only to orient myself in the new world—and usually, once I read a few more sentences, I want to read a few more. And then I’m hooked.

Here’s a random sampling of memorable first lines from the Alex Alger library.

“It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

Like a match struck in a darkened room: Two white girls in flannel nightgowns and red vinyl roller skates with white laces, tracing tentative circles on a cracked blue slate sidewalk at seven o’clock on an evening in July.” The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem

“Roy would not have noticed the strange boy if it weren’t for Dana Matherson, because Roy ordinarily didn’t look out the window of the school bus.” Hoot, Carl Hiaasen

“It began in the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.” A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan

“His children were falling from the sky.” Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

“Walking back to camp through the swamp, Sam wondered whether to tell his father what he had seen.” The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White

“I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.” People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks

“Our mother performed in starlight.” Swamplandia!, Karen Russell

“Selden paused in surprise.” The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

And—one of my all-time favorites:

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

Agents and editors always tell aspiring writers to avoid opening with a dream. That’s got to be because if you can’t do it as well as Daphne du Maurier does, what’s the point? Of course, no rule really applies to accomplished writers. Donna Tartt begins The Goldfinch with a dream, and no one minded. Certainly not the Pulitzer Prize Board. (“When I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”)

The sound of E.B. White

Plangent.

Do you know that word? I’m reading about Shakespeare’s ability to summon “plangent feeling,” as well as “robust comedy” and “penetrating psychology” in the four history plays currently being put on by the Royal Shakespeare Co. at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The admiring words come from New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood, whose reviews (quite good) don’t usually cause me to pause and think, “What was that?” I was sure there was a typo of some kind—could he have meant “urgent”?—but no, plangent’s a word. It means a loud, reverberating, often melancholy sound.

The plangent sound of bells. That’s the example dictionaries like to give. How about the plangent moo of a cow? The plangent drone of a garbage truck at 4 am? (That sound might be more grating than melancholy.)

The noun is plangency. That doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it? Doing a bit of online research, I found that Newsweek once described E.B. White’s audio-book reading of Charlotte’s Web as having “a plangency that will make you weep.”

Oh, leave it to a journalist to use a fancy, un-child-like word in a story about a children’s book! I’m allowed to complain; I was a journalist once. Still I have to admit it’s an interesting use of plangency, and if anyone could summon that kind of sound, maybe it would be E.B. White.

I like saying “plangent.” It’s not onomatopoeia, but it’s a nice meaty word. Or as Isherwood might say, muscular. I’m not picking on him, just noticing his review includes a word that seems to be in vogue as an alternative to robust, powerful, dynamic. He calls some of the scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV “muscularly staged”. When I read that, I honestly think of men with bulging calf muscles, which you might well see in a Shakespeare play involving kings and courts. I myself use “muscular” in the old way, to refer to someone’s physical state. (I’m all for bulging biceps.)

I see I’ve fallen into the habit of writing about words I don’t plan on using, instead of the ones I do. Get with the program, Alex!

P.S. David Tennant, the Scottish actor, is starring in Richard II at BAM right now. Only standing-room only tickets right now. (I’m mulling whether I could stand for two-plus hours). If you haven’t seen Tennant in the 2013 TV series Broadchurch, and if you have Netflix, and if you like murder mysteries set in small seaside English towns (and who doesn’t like those, I ask you?)—I urge you to download! There are two gripping seasons to watch, and another one being filmed this summer. He’s also incredibly good and creepy in the 2015 TV series about superheroes, Jessica Jones. “I don’t watch that much TV, I swear,” she cried plangently.

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