Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Close-Read: The First Sentence of The Blind Assassin

I'm participating in The Atlantic's 1book140 read-a-long of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin this month. The following is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts close-reading sections of the novel. If you somehow found your way here through 1book140, welcome. It's nice to have you.

A good first sentence can teach you how to read a novel. It can tell you what the novel cares about and what you should watch for. The best first sentences are gem-like: a product of compression and value.

The problem with this though is that first sentences are just that: first. You don't know anything about the novel yet and race through the first paragraphs and pages just to get your bearings, to figure out who is who and what exactly the hell is going on. So most readers read the first sentence purely pragmatically as a step toward getting comfortable with the work.

This isn't wrong of course and some first sentences don't warrant much attention. But many of them do and the rewards of looking at them closely can enrich the subsequent experience of the novel. (A professor of mine once said that when we started reading a novel, we should read the first sentence and then shut the book for awhile, letting that sentence percolate and prepare us to read the rest. I have found this wonderfully generative. So let it be clear that at this point I have read only the first sentence of The Blind Assassin).

Alright, so let's take a look at the first line of The Blind Assassin:

Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off a bridge.

Some observations:

1. Without reading any farther, Atwood tells us a great deal about what we're in for. The subject of the sentence is "sister," so even if the predicate were not so juicy, this places the novel squarely in the domestic. The force of the main clause, though, might distract from the strangeness of the opening modifier. "Ten days" is an oddly specific amount of time after "the war ended." This specificity leads me to think that there is a connection between the war and its end and the sister's plunge, though no causal relation is indicated. Perhaps the disjunction between the scope of war and this intimate detail of family history creates the tension. The process of the novel will be to explain, and thus alleviate, that suspense.

2. And what war is this? Not too many clues here, though in late 20th Century English prose, you usually won't lose your money betting on World War II. Also, assuming for the moment that this took place in an industrialized country, it's been pretty hard to drive a car off a bridge for the last few decades, what with all the annoying safety regulations and all. So if that's a fair guess, then this happened in a time when cars were relatively accessible and before road safety became a concern. (That, or there was something wrong with the bridge.) Pretty thin evidence, to be sure, so we'll have to wait and see how this one pans out.

3. There's plenty to be said, though, about the sister. Well, not her exactly, but her car and the manner of demise. First, "drove" indicates an amount of agency that suggests this was not an accident. Had Atwood wanted to lead us toward foul-play or a mishap, I doubt she would have chosen "drove," and perhaps not even the active voice. The narrator's sister willingly went off a bridge. What we want to know now is why. More on this in a bit.

4. The other notable word choice here is the indefinite article "a": the sister drove "a" car off a bridge. We can guess that is was not her car; standard description would use the possessive to indicate ownership or affiliation. Whose car this is or how she came to be driving it is now also on the table.

5. As it turns out, the trajectory of the car with sister inside is not the most interesting thing about this sentence; this action is over at the moment of description. We want to know how this odd (not just the action itself, but the details as well) fate came to pass. This tells us something else about the novel; it is about the past. Not only is the sentence in the narrative past tense, but the narrator herself knows this history. So unless we flash forward to the present of the narrator's time, this is a novel about memory.

Here's what we have so far: war, memory, family, violence, and mystery. You could do worse to pull readers in.

6. This is extra-textual and so not strictly close-reading (forgive me Professor Atkins, wherever you are hounding earnest undergraduates), but this sentence reminds me of another first sentence: "When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow."

Recognize it? Yup, To Kill a Mockingbird.

7. Not only is the structure parallel, a temporal marker followed by violent act with vague origin, but the thematic concerns also overlap (really all but war). Comparing To Kill a Mockingbird's first line to The Blind Assassin's also strengthens the case for seeing "my sister drove" as meaningful. Here, Jem's injury is clearly not of his own doing. And like in The Blind Assassin, the temporal marker is unusual--that Scout says "nearly thirteen" rather than "twelve" turns out to be meaningful, as To Kill a Mockingbird is very much a coming-of-age/disillusionment story.

8. First sentences and paragraphs are also especially important in first person narratives because they tell us something signficant about the narrator's relationship to the story they are telling. How invested are they in it?How much time has passed? Is this language that they might actually saying? Or is it the kind of first person narration with no imaginable actual speech act? The colloquial "got his arm broke" in To Kill a Mockingbird suggest that this is speech. In The Blind Assassin, the narrator's relationship to the action seems cold, or at least somewhat removed from the trauma described. The specificity and impersonality of the time (we might expect something about ages rather than this historical time) are more clinical than emotional. Maybe clinical is too strong, but the narrator does seem to be at some remove.

9. This last point isn't about The Blind Assassin directly. I got thinking about the evolution of first sentences in literature. This one feels modern, as much about intrigue as it is about art, without being experimental or otherwise jarring. It has a story-teller quality to it (if you were going to write a one-sentence story, this would be a good effort). In contrast, the novel's greatest century, the 18th, saw authors start broadly and drill down from there ("It is a truth universally acknowledged," "It was the best of times," "All happy families are alike," and so on). The standard opening now works the other way, using a detail as a wedge to introduce the story. Contemporary authors (massive generalization warning) seem to put a premium on keeping the reader off-balance at the start, rather than hold their hand. I suspect part of this is fashion, but another part might be the novelist's unwillingness to make the bold statement or sweeping proclamation. (Thanks a lot, culture wars).

Alright, I think that's all I have on this. On to the second sentence! Kidding, kidding. I'm sure I'll make it through the next paragraph at least...

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  1. Oh hell yes. I loved this book. Can't wait to read more of your close readings.

  2. Wow. This is fantastic. I sometimes can't get a few paragraphs out about an entire book and you've written a whole post about a sentence! Keep going ;)

  3. what a great post! (I got here from Twitter). I think I'm going to spend more time thinking about first lines from now on.

  4. Bang on, and quite contrary to your assertion, very readable and astute. First lines reveal a lot but they never get the same attention as last lines or endings, do they? They should... take Anna Karenina, Ulysses, 1984, Notes From The Underground, for instance... their first lines are so full and telling and wonderful and deserving of explication.

  5. I am in awe right now! To go back to your earlier series of posts, I've now decided that while I may not think in literary terms as I read I am certainly glad that you do. I loved this book, I can't wait to see what you make of it!

  6. Oh, man, reading is going to be so much more exhausting from now on... Seriously, great post, look forward to more!

  7. Such a pity that your first sentence is missing a crucial verb, and perhaps more. "A good first sentence can teach you how to a novel."

  8. I had been thinking of skipping this "novel by twitter" business. But like the Godfather, you've pulled me back in.

  9. Really great post. I love a close "dissect" look at linguistics. :-)

  10. I loved reading this, the first line is the most important part of a book to me. My favourite opening line of all time is in Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again". Its so wistful.

  11. Fantastic and insightful.You have created a new first for me. Pun intended of course.

  12. I loved this book when I read it ... it's a very cleverly structured one. I'd love to read it again, but just can't fit it in.

    Love your post too. One of my reading practices is to go back and read the first para or so when I've finished a book ... the opening sentences (as you say) can give you a real clue to meaning but you often miss that at the start.

  13. Oh, and one of my favourite contemporary novel first lines is Toni Morrison's Beloved. At least I think I remember it correctly: "124 was spiteful". There's not a lot to dissect there in a way and yet it conveys the sense of mystery, discomfort and potential for fear that the book plays out. Who or what is 124? Animate or inanimate? Why is he/she/it spiteful? Who is he/she/it spiteful to?

  14. This idea of focusing on the first sentence will revolutionize meetings of my book club. I am so glad I found this blog, and this post in particular.

  15. Great post. I am a cognitive psychologist, and I think this also applies to how our brains actually read. While we may not have the conscious experience (until we read your post) of making all the guesses and assumptions that you mention, our brain is doing just that. We read not only by translating the shapes of letters into sounds and words, but also by subtle expectations about what is going to come next.

  16. Wonderful post. Love the comparison to Harper Lee. *applauding*

  17. Good stuff, Ape. This makes me miss my college English lit discussion groups.

  18. I wish it were the beginning of the school year and not the end. I would love to share this post with my students. I especially like the idea of reading the first sentence and then closing the book.

  19. Hi, I found your blog through the Friday Blog Hop and just been reading your post about the first line of The Blind Assassin, it's really interesting how you've gone through the words.
    Best wishes,

  20. Fantastic. Although I can't help thinking, whenever I see this level of scrutiny, that you've probably thought about it a whole lot more than the author ever did.

  21. Found you through the hop...Nice close reading of the Atwood first sentence. Makes me want to do something similar. Would be a fun blog hop question to address, but somehow I think most of the paranormal YA readers out there might not agree...

    And as an indie bookseller, I'd like to thank you for including independent bookstores on your blog as a source for buying books.

  22. there anyone from Serbia who can translate me the first chapter?I need it for Saturday,for school

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