Thursday, August 17, 2006

Old Beginnings 2

Five openings set in New York City, all from published novels or short stories. Would you read on?

The sources are posted at the bottom of the page.

1. In those days cheap Manhattan apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer I vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime. I was grateful for that if nothing else, since my youth, I felt, was at its lowest ebb. At twenty-two, struggling to become some kind of writer, I found that the creative heat which at eighteen had nearly consumed me with its gorgeous, relentless flame had flickered out to a dim pilot light registering little more than a token glow in my breast, or wherever my hungriest aspirations once resided. It was not that I no longer wanted to write, I still yearned passionately to produce the novel which had been for so long captive in my brain.

2. THERE WERE ninety-seven New York advertising men in the hotel, and, the way they were monopolizing the long-distance lines, the girl in 507 had to wait from noon till almost two-thirty to get her call through. She used the time, though. She read an article in a women's pocket-size magazine, called "Sex Is Fun-or Hell." She washed her comb and brush. She took the spot out of the skirt of her beige suit. She moved the button on her Saks blouse. She tweezed out two freshly surfaced hairs in her mole. When the operator finally rang her room, she was sitting on the window seat and had almost finished putting lacquer on the nails of her left hand.

She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing. She looked as if her phone had been ringing continually ever since she had reached puberty.

With her little lacquer brush, while the phone was ringing, she went over the nail of her little finger, accentuating the line of the moon. She then replaced the cap on the bottle of lacquer and, standing up, passed her left--the wet--hand back and forth through the air. With her dry hand, she picked up a congested ashtray from the window seat and carried it with her over to the night table, on which the phone stood. She sat down on one of the made-up twin beds and--it was the fifth or sixth ring--picked up the phone.

3. Madness is a relative state. Who can say which of us is truly insane? And while I roam through Central Park wearing moth-eaten clothes and a surgical mask, screaming revolutionary slogans and laughing hysterically, I wonder even now if what I did was really so irrational. For, dear reader, I was not always what is popularly referred to as "a New York street crazy," pausing at trash cans to fill my shopping bags with bits of string and bottle caps. No, I was once a highly successful doctor living on the upper East Side, gadding about town in a brown Mercedes and bedecked dashingly in a varied array of Ralph Lauren tweeds. Hard to believe that I, Doctor Ossip Parkis, once a familiar face at theatre openings, Sardi's, Lincoln Center, and the Hamptons, where I boasted great wit and a formidable backhand, am sometimes seen roller skating unshaven down Broadway wearing a knapsack and a pinwheel hat.

4. A few years ago, on the east side of Manhattan, not far from Bloomingdale's, a man set up a business where he sold diet shakes, delicious chocolate milk shakes having only 77 calories. Well, I tell you, fat young girls came from near and far and lined up around the block at lunchtime. Only 77 calories, and such heaven! I was one of the ones who had two for lunch every day.

Many of the girls would ask the man what was in the drink. He just smiled and said, "A secret ingredient." The girls started to doubt that the shakes had only 77 calories. They formed a committee and went to City Hall (or wherever it is you go to complain). The man was investigated by the Food and Drug Commission (or whoever it is who does that sort of thing). There were more than 280 calories in those diet shakes. How could he? "How could he lie like that?" was the cry.


5. The editor paid for the lunch (as editors do). He lighted his seventh cigarette and leaned back. The conversation, which had zigzagged from the war to Zuloaga, and from Rasputin the Monk to the number of miles a Darrow would go on a gallon, narrowed down to the thin, straight line of business.

"Now don't misunderstand. Please! We're not presuming to dictate. Dear me, no! We have always felt that the writer should be free to express that which is in his--ah--heart. But in the last year we've been swamped with these drab, realistic stories. Strong, relentless things, you know, about dishwashers, with a lot of fine detail about the fuzz of grease on the rim of the pan. And then those drear and hopeless ones about fallen sisters who end it all in the East River. The East River must be choked up with 'em. Now, I know that life is real, life is earnest, and I'm not demanding a happy ending, exactly. But if you could--that is--would you--do you see your way at all clear to giving us a fairly cheerful story? Not necessarily Glad, but not so darned Russian, if you get me. Not pink, but not all grey either. Say--mauve."

Old Beginnings 2

1. Sophie's Choice....William Styron
2. "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"....J. D. Salinger
3. "The Lunatic's Tale"....Woody Allen
4. Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York....Gail Parent
5. Cheerful--By Request....Edna Ferber


Anonymous said...

I, for one, would not want to live in a world where a man lies about calories.

Anonymous said...

1. No. There's a twenty-two-year-old man whining at me about how tragic it is to not be eighteen anymore. Honey? Just save your breath. It gets worse.

2. Yes! I was on pins and needles waiting for her to pick up that damned phone. The line about her dropping exactly nothing for a ringing phone was fantastic.

3. Yes. All those little details that don't add up; I want to know more. I want to know what happened to make this lucid-sounding man rollerskate in a pinwheel hat.

4. Yes. What an impact those last two sentences had!

5. Yes. The way the editor verbally danced around issuing a demand, and the language he used to do it, was hilarious. You can already tell what the conflict is going to be for the POV character.

Anonymous said...

I thought #2 was the catchiest, and Google showed that the story is online in its entirety--upon which I was sharply reminded that it's hard to judge a story by its first 150 words.

Not the kind of thing I care for at all.

McKoala said...

I don't know any of these, so coming at them fresh:

1. Probably. Although he annoys me already.
2. Yes, love this one, although a name would be nice.
3. Yes, also love this one.
4. Yes, as above.
5. Maybe. Again, I'm slightly irritated, this time by the editor. If he's not hanging around, I'd be interested.

I accept that an irritating character is not a reason for an agent to reject a well-written novel, but it stops me from reading them!

Anonymous said...

As for #1: Well, I've read the novel, so I obviously wasn't turned off by the way it begins. I guess stylish writing really is enough for me. (But this book sure could have been shorter. It's even more languid than the movie.) Note, by the way, that in the next couple pages you discover that the point-of-view character is, of all things, a slushpile reader.

#2. I love this beginning. Perfect example of including the right telling details.

#3. Whatever you think, it is arresting. And kinda funny.

4. This is also hysterical. I'd keep reading.

5. This doesn't send me, but I'm not really sure I can put my finger on why.

Dan Lewis said...

#1. I like the first sentence a lot. The second and third sentences are more of the same "all the children are above average" silliness. It is a parody of bad writing by the author, spoken through the character of this 22-year-old narrator. In fact, it sounds almost like Atlanta Nights. This story is going to be ridiculous to match the ridiculous style, if you are into that sort of thing. I so am.

#2. The way this girl spent her two and a half hours does not inspire me with much confidence. I wish for bad things to happen to this girl. I would read on to see if they did.

The call is promised in the first sentence and about to be delivered at the end of the excerpt. Also, the sentence indicates period (a time when long-distance calls were difficult to make because of the limited availability of lines, and you had to wait your turn).

The way the girl spends her time describes her and characterizes her at once. The author slyly undercuts all her primping by saying she used the time, which sets up an expectation that someone is about to do something useful, like read a book of sermons. Instead, she reads a pocket magazine about sex (more period stuff) and moves the button on her blouse.

"She looked as if her phone had been ringing" is a double entendre that characterizes as it describes, but it took me a couple of tries to get it.

Anonymous said...

I was most drawn in by #5. I love the first paragraph, esp the phrase "narrowed down to the thin straight line of business." T
My second fav was #2, because of the character's behavior. I want to know more about her phone call and what makes her tick. #4 amused me, I'd keep reading.

#1 didn't turn me off or draw me in; I'd keep reading only if I knew enough about the author's other work or if something in the book jacket description/reviews appealed.
#3 is a good opening but not to my taste.

Anonymous said...

Is the first one Styron, Sophie's Choice. If so, I recognized it immediately. If not, I'm a dummy.

I was a senior in high school when I checked that book out of the library, and faked being sick for a week so I could read it.

I balled my eyes out!

Anonymous said...

I was right! I was right!

I agree with Mark. However, if I try to look at #1 objectively, I'm not sure I'd buy the book now, if I'd never read it. It is a guy rambling on.

It just so happens I find myself very moved by Styron's writing. He rambles, but eloquently, engagingly. That book has never left me. I fear world domination by some abhorrent group bent on genocide who might force me to make a choice between my children.

I liked #2. I wanted to know more about the girl who didn't pick-up the phone.

#3 - so-so

#4 - Read it. It pulled me in the first time, as it did this time.

No opinion on the others.

Anonymous said...

Loved, loved, loved Number 5! Can just picture it - they're at one of those old New York Men's Clubs, there's the smell of cigars and cigarette, the muted chink of ice in thick lead crystal glasses, the writer is sitting in some deep chair from which he'd like to struggle up and strangle the editor, the editor is smiling, avuncular, his eyes warm with love for this young writer in need of a little guidance.

I liked 2, 3 and 4 as well but I wouldn't bother to read further.

Number 1 I didn't like at all.

HawkOwl said...

None of them. They all seem to be exactly what New York is about (as far as I can tell, having never been anywhere near, nor intending to do so), but not in a funny enough way.

braun said...

Tend to agree with HawkOwl, although I kind of like #5.

Anonymous said...

#1 was the only one that didn't do it for me. The "Manhattan apartments in Manhattan" bit irked me. Did he have to use Manhattan twice? (Yeah, it's a little thing, but sometimes little things in stories get to me.)

Plus, the POV character sounded smug. Maybe it gets better later on in the book, but, meh. If a character, the main one or not, is smug AND is funny/witty (without trying too hard), that's a character I can appreciate. But not this one.


Dan Lewis said...

Wow. I never would have guessed in a million years that #1 was that story. I guess I have to read it.

Anonymous said...

Can you imagine the howling by the minions if somebody posted this:

"She was a girl who for a ringing phone dropped exactly nothing."

Salinger, beware the minions! And the zombies, the brutal eunuchs and most of all, The Pooka of Leinster!

Fierce Weenie will protect you.

Unknown said...

1. No. The first sentence had "Manhattan" twice, which was annoyingly redundant.

2. Yes. But I don't like her, and I find myself oddly curious about where exactly that mole is, and how large.

3. Pinwheel hat? Yes, I would read on.

4. No. Who cares? Sounds like Chic Lit that is supposed to be funny because it parodies image-obessed women.

5. Yes. It's the most interesting one of them all. And not just because it was an editor.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I sound like I'm sucking up to the teacher, but I'd keep reading all of these.

#5 (I'm guessing a short story, but I'll peek to find out) and #3 immediately.

Here's my take on the overall exercise though.

All you need early on is a hint at something to keep the reader around.

Take #2, for example. While I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to learn about her phone call, she's killing me with her patience. Answer the friggin' phone! I feel like I'm spying from the next room. Put down the lacquer and pick up the phone. But I'm not going to leave until she answers it and I learn more.

That's great stuff. And it's all set up with mundane details that rise to a new level because of what the author set up.

It's what we've often referred to in these postings as "action" I believe.

Tell the reader only as much as they need to know to keep turning the pages. Love that. Now can I follow it?

none said...

1. No. Overwritten for my taste, and the woes of a writer? Please. It's bad enough hearing myself think.

2. Possibly. I'm intrigued.

3. Would depend on my mood. I'm not massively interested, especially as I really need to love a book to get past being addressed directly by its author.

4. No. Not even if it was the only thing to read on the moon, and there was a twenty-year wait for a return shuttle.

5. No. I didn't even manage to finish reading the excerpt.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read anyone else's comments yet, but here are mine:

1. Yawn. I kept thinking of advice I've heard from others: you want to write a novel, stop talking about it and just write it. Also, I'm old. The complaints of 22 year olds whose "creative fire has dimmed" inspire no sympathy from me. I'd pass.

2. Tweezing hairs from her mole? Eew. And if this long-waited-for call isn't important to her, why should it be important to me? Pass.

3. I would definitely keep reading this one. The narrator doesn't sound crazy, and in fact states plainly that he doesn't think that he is, yet his behavior suggests otherwise. I'm curious enough to want to find out what's going on here.

4. This is obviously both chick-lit (which I don't read) and a rip-off of a Seinfeld episode. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with the writing, but I'm not much interested in a character who thinks a few calories are worth killing oneself for. Get over it, eat a salad if it's that important to you.

5. This one is interesting due to the style, the tone. But so far I don't feel much in the way of actual story happening. Sounds like it's going to be more of a story about writing stories, actually. But I would keep reading, for a bit, to see if something interesting happens. I'm not hooked, but neither am I turned off, yet.

So, 2/5 on this go-round. No doubt I'm missing some good books. Woe is me.


Evil Editor said...

This is obviously both chick-lit (which I don't read) and a rip-off of a Seinfeld episode.

The Seinfeld yogurt episode aired in 1993. Sheila Levine was published in 1972. Who ripped off whom?

Kathleen said...

I liked 4 and 5, but hated the first three. Fun!

Anonymous said...

EE said: The Seinfeld yogurt episode aired in 1993. Sheila Levine was published in 1972. Who ripped off whom?

You got me there. I didn't know the source, and I assumed it was more recent based on the chick-lit feel. Apparently this kind of image-obsession dates back farther than I thought. Sad.


Anonymous said...

1. A narrator with a wry sense of humor. I'd keep reading.

2. I loved this beginning. Langorous, like the character.

3. Interesting. I might keep reading. But bag ladies and street crazies are also too sad, so I'm not sure.

4. Loved this! The guy who lies about calories is a criminal!

5. I liked this, too. Clear sense of time. And an editor who wants "happy"-I already feel for the writer narrator!

Learning from these exercises. Thanks, EE.

Anonymous said...

I would read every one of these -- #2, 4, and 5 before 1 and 3, but each one of them has flavor and attitude. Indeed, they are all funny, though not in a way that would preclude seriousness.