The advent of 2019 has given us cause to reflect, and this year we’ve found ourselves reflecting on the ways we build our foundations—AKA, how we choose our books.
It’s a personal process. Reviews and recommendations play a part, of course—that’s why blogs like this one exist—and despite the old adage, there’s not a one among us who hasn’t judged a book by its cover: that’s why marketing teams exist. But we’ve found there is no greater recommender of why a book is great than the book itself—or, more specifically, its opening pages.
This week, CH Lips and MM Foley explore the openings of two great novels, to try to determine what makes them so great, and to pinpoint—if we can—what magic happens in these pages that makes a reader want to keep reading. In order to do this, we each selected a spec-fic novel by a well-established author that the other person had not read and swapped opening pages. The newbie read the sample and gave impressions; the person who’d read the whole thing compared those impressions to the rest of the novel. Did the first pages thrill? Entice? Befuddle? Bore? And furthermore, how well did the author establish what was to come?
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Christie: When deciding on a new book to read, I look for this above all—good writing. And preferably brilliant writing. I’ve gotten rather curmudgeony about this. Certain book covers can turn me off (no thank you shirtless muscle man with breeze-blown coif and/or pirate wench with excessive cleavage glimpsed through breeze-blown coif) but in my experience with publishing a book I’ve learned that the writer almost never gets a say about the cover. Thus you’ll find me in a bookstore, head angled at 90°, scanning the bindings for the names of authors I recognize from the list of recommendations by my writing pals, (most notably my fellow, uber-literate Fiction Unbounders) I keep on my phone. So Meghan’s suggestion that I sample the opening pages of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle received two happy thumbs-up.
The story opens with the inciting incident happening in the first line—the phone rings and then we enter into the well-ordered life of an unnamed narrator doing the mundane task of cooking pasta while listening to classical music. The narrator doesn’t like the intrusion into the cooking or the music but is looking for a job and duty prevails. They pick up the phone and enter into a bizarre conversation with an unknown woman:
“Ten minutes, please,” said a woman on the other end.
I’m good at recognizing people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.
“Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?”
“To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That’s all we need to understand each other.” Her voice was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.
“Understand each other?”
“Each other’s feelings.”
And I’m hooked. This narrator’s world is about to be flipped on its head. Unusual powers are poised to intrude upon a carefully controlled life. But right away we see that we’ll be following a reluctant hero. Unlike me, the narrator is not drawn in by this woman’s intriguing response and asks her to call back later—the spaghetti is cooking. The narrator further tries to dissuade the return call by admitting they are out of work and won’t be buying anything. The woman on the phone says:
“Don’t worry. I know.”
“You know? You know what?”
“That you’re out of work. I know about that. So go cook your precious spaghetti.”
This stranger has a chilling amount of knowledge about our narrator’s life, and I want to know how she knows it. Murakami has succeeded in drawing me into the story.
I opened this book as a Murakami blank slate having not read any of his works (I know, I know—so many brilliant books still to read!) so I don’t have a sense for the themes/world rules/issues that he tends to explore in his work. But the writer in me is already taking off on the possibilities this weird, random phone call opens up. In terms of plot I’m thinking of an underground network of people who have special powers or who have discovered a unique ability to connect with people that transcends the usual methods of communication and time required to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. I’m expecting this group of people will try to enlist our reluctant narrator into their cause.
So what sense does this opening give to me about the potential themes and ideas of the novel? The narrator begins the story with a refusal of the call—an unknown woman offers, albeit strangely, empathy and connection, something we all desire, but the narrator is so disconnected with humanity, so invested in their little mundane plans that they cannot engage even to explore the possibilities that could unfold from this woman’s offer. Going with this theory, Murakami could be exploring ideas of human connection, how it tends to mess with a closely controlled life and how ultimately it is what we need, as members of the human race, above all else.
Meghan: I’m actually surprised at how much Christie got out of just a few lines—her response demonstrates just how powerful Murakami’s writing is (and probably also that she’s a pretty keen reader). Wind-Up Bird is, as she says, about a disconnected, disaffected man, Toru Okada, who is so wound-up in his own mundane life that when the fantastic comes calling—literally—he can’t disentangle himself from mediocrity until the situation turns dire.
In terms of plot, Christie is almost spot-on. There is an underground world, and a network of people utilizing it for their personal gain. They do indeed try to draw Toru in. The loss and re-establishment of human connection is a central theme, for the storyline revolves around Toru’s quest to find his missing wife, who has, he believes, disappeared into this world. And yet even as each of these plot points unfolds, Murakami subverts every one of Christie’s expectations. There is no come-to-Jesus moment for Toru Okada, no event that jolts him out of his stupor: instead, Murakami buries Toru—and the reader along with him—in an increasingly dreamlike, disconnected world, where even the most disturbing events (in one particularly memorable scene a man is skinned alive, “like a peach”) take on a soft edge of surreality. This is not a tale of awakenings; it is, rather, an exploration of the ways the mundane and the magical intermingle, neither more powerful or more important than the other.
This intermingling is precisely why The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s opening works so well. It establishes what’s to come, sure, but Toru’s encounter with the hypersexed, otherworldly female voice on the telephone, contrasted against his muted, indifferent response, also provides a microcosm of the novel’s overall tone, as well as one of its major themes: that the fantastic and the pedestrian are never very far apart, even when they are in open opposition.
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Meghan: Did Christie already establish that we’re all guilty of judging a book by its cover? Well, I’m going to reiterate the old adage as an attempt at exonerating myself through collective guilt, because I admit when I first saw the original cover of Christie’s pick, I passed judgment. I am the worst kind of snob when it comes to fantasy: I don’t have patience for what I perceive as cliché, and I got tired of the mysterious-man-in-cloak-with-face-shrouded-by-shadow trope around the eighth annual Foley-family Lord of the Rings marathon. When I saw that trope in full force before I’d even opened The Name of the Wind, I almost didn’t open it at all—and probably wouldn’t have, if Christie hadn’t placed it in my hands.
The opening paragraphs don’t do much to eschew my initial impressions. The prologue finds us in a scene not unlike the very one that made me weary of the cloaked man in the first place, except Rothfuss’s inn is called the Waystone instead of the Prancing Pony. A deathly silence— “a silence of three parts”— has descended on the Waystone Inn like a shroud, and it’s this silence in which we are introduced to the red-haired mystery man who is the novel’s first point of intrigue. As we meet him, the man is standing by the hearth of a dying fire, “polishing a stretch of mahogany”—a wand, perhaps?— and ruminating in the aforementioned silence.
This red-haired man is a man in a cloak if I ever saw one. The fact that he isn’t actually wearing a cloak is pretty immaterial. To be honest, this is normally where I’d stop reading, if I’d even started at all, and yet…
And yet, what these opening paragraphs lack in originality is more than made up for in the quality of the writing. I’ve read less than a page and I am already shivering from the ominous, unseen presence of whatever has caused this three-part silence. It’s clear this presence occupies the setting far beyond the four walls of the Waystone, though the scene is entirely contained within these walls. Most impressive of all, I’m thoroughly invested in finding out who the man behind the metaphorical cloak is. Why does he “move with the subtle certainty that comes from knowing many things”? What does he know? To generate this much intrigue in less than a full page takes skill, and skillful writing trumps all when I’m deciding what to read next.
These few paragraphs are proof that there’s no such thing as a clichéd plot—only clichéd storytelling. And the latter is nowhere to be seen in this prologue. Rothfuss jabbed me right in my personal pet-peeve with his first page, and yet I’m desperate to learn more. Do I know what this novel will be about? Nope, but give me a turn of phrase like “the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die” and I’ll stick around to find out.
Christie: It was quite the challenge to find a book Meghan hadn’t read and also one with an opening that I liked enough to offer up for her discriminating perusal. My first choice was Kazuo Ishiguru’s Never Let Me Go, but Meghan knew enough about the plot to taint her reading of the opening. So I settled on The Name of the Wind, remembering my first read of that unforgettable first page, how the lyrical beauty of the writing impressed me enough that I couldn’t just borrow it from the library; I had to own it.
I agree with Meghan, the cover on my 2009 paperback edition with its lone, twisted tree, stormy sky and caped, hooded figure are banal as a summer stock performance of The Music Man. But the publisher redeemed itself with the cover art for the 10th anniversary edition published in 2017—a broken lute—much more original and also a key element of the story.
I’m not surprised that Meghan couldn’t speculate on what this story is about. Rothfuss lays down some gorgeous prose in this opening but gives the reader little in terms of world-building and access to characters in action in this world. There is “troubling news” being avoided and an overall brooding heaviness to this world, the source of which is a man who has clearly been on a journey, gained certainty and wisdom along the way, but also for some unknown reason, has chosen to give up. Not exactly a compelling hero. But then comes that last, “cut flower” line and there is no choice, we have to know what has caused this man to give up on life. And the writer in us is curious to see if Rothfuss can maintain this level of lyrical prose throughout this 600+ page novel.