Sunday, January 31, 2010

Open Season

Two authors of the twenty-first century are deservedly well known for the compelling intricacy of their plots. Harlen Coben and Lee Child are synonymous for their ability to get a lead character into an enormous, complicated jam at the outset. Their recommendations alone are a guarantee of sales for the books of other authors, their by-lines on a title as good as a Triple-A bond rating. Nevertheless, the opening for each of them to beat, arguably the most charged and amazing opening chapter in the English language, came from the nineteenth century, 1886 to be precise. Although the author's intent was commercial, it was invariably literary and social as well. More than ten years earlier still, he'd produced a scene that gave us another technique commercial and literary writers have cherished ever since, the cliffhanger.

Opening velocity is a term used to describe the speed and intensity with which a novel or short story begins, using situations, moral and emotional pressures, and discoveries to connect the reader with the characters and to induce the reader to sign on for the entire trip. Readers of different sorts of fiction find themselves alerted in one way or another to the speed and intensity of opening velocity, sometimes with recommendations from other authors, occasionally with a double entendre or enigmatic title, and still other times with a skillfully executed blurb suggesting such enticements as sex, corpses, grinding suspense, amazing revelations, and perhaps a hash of all of them. Browsing through the titles at big box book chains, you begin to wonder why publishers don't establish a numerical index similar to the number of megapixels on a digital camera. This novel rated 9 opening velocity by the Indie Booksellers of America. Or indeed, why some reviewers, such as those who sell their blurbs for newly released movies, don't have a numerical system in their written commentary. Moby-Dick. A stunning 9!

Books did not always begin with such velocity, meandering rather than rushing along the narrative path, taking in the scenery narrative, describing the clothing and manners of the characters, forming a relationship with the reader, moving edgily toward the plot as though it were an attempt to collect a debt from a friend. Such a writer, indeed the writer of the two novels from the first paragraph, was Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), whose more famous novels, Tess of the Durbervilles and Jude, the Obscure, were also written and published before the twentieth century began, and were thought necessary elements of our high school education before we were allowed to move onward.

The cliffhanger novel, A Pair of Blue Eyes, from 1873, has the momentous scene in which Knight, a young architect and surveyor is out on the steep cliffs with a young lady he is most interested in. A gust of wind makes off with the young lady's hat, capriciously depositing it just a few feet down an escarpment. Ever the gentleman, Knight seeks to retrieve it, falls, and lands on a narrow ledge, holding a clump of deep-rooted sedge, where "he could see the vertical [cliff] face curving round on each side of him. He looked down the facade and realized more thoroughly how it threatened him." Unnerved, the young girl finally runs to get help, and later, we get someone else's view of Knight through a powerful telescope, hanging tenaciously, but for how long?

The novel with the memorable opening chapter is The Mayor of Casterbridge, which begins with a well-built young man of twenty-one, Michael Henchard, walking along a country road with his wife and young daughter in Wessex, a fictionalized rural England. Henchard sees a county fair in the distance and figures he can go there, pick up a job cutting and trussing hay. "But mind, Michael," Susan says, "don't be drinking."

"What do you take me for?" Michael says.

Susan is not the brightest kid on the block, but she knows Michael well enough. By the end of the chapter, Michael is loaded and has auctioned Susan and the daughter to Newsome, a sailor from whom we will hear more, for five guineas.

Nearly everyone in The Mayor of Casterbridge has a secret of one sort or another, a strong influence on my revisit; my work in progress even has the word secrets in its title.

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