does the entire book lie within its first two sentences? Herman Koch and a Kephart experiment

Monday, January 12, 2015

The only thing benign about Herman Koch's The Dinner is the title—which, like almost everything else about the story, is designed to throw the reader off. "My Dinner with Andre" this is not. Politics, culture, morality, and childrens' lives are at stake (only the first three were at stake in the movie). The questions: What would we do to protect a child who has committed a heinous act? What would we do if we had somehow (implicitly, explicitly) encouraged or modeled or genetically produced an evil creature? Who do we love and why do we love them and what does familial happiness look like? At what cost, secrets?

All this unfolds over the course of a meal in an expensive restaurant. Two brothers and their wives have come to High Civility to discuss a horrific, seamy event. Paul, whose jealousy and creepiness are transparent from the start, tells us the story. He tells us who he is, even as he repeatedly cautions that many parts of the tale are not our business.

It's a brutal, brilliant book (compared to Gone Girl, I think it greatly supersedes it). It's not the kind of book I typically read, it oozes with contemptible people and scenes, but I was riveted by Koch's ability to see his vision through—so entirely relentlessly. And then I got to the paperback's extra matter and an essay by Koch himself called "The First Sentence."

For me, a book is already finished once I've come up with the first sentence. Or rather: the first two sentences. Those first two sentences contain everything I need to know about the book. I sometimes call them the book's "DNA." As long as every sentence that comes afterward contains that same DNA, everything is fine.

Koch's first two sentences, in case you are wondering, are: "We were going out to dinner. I won't say which restaurant, because next time it might be full of people who've come to see whether we're there." And absolutely, yes. The entire book is bracketed within them.

I believe in the power of first sentences, too. I think about them as setters of mood and tone. I wondered, though, whether I could say, about any of my novels, that the entire story rests within the first two sentences. I decided to conduct a mini-experiment. I grabbed a few books from my shelf. Opened to page one. Conducted a self-interview and assessment. I had to cheat in one place only (Dr. Radway), where more than two sentences were required. Otherwise, I'm thinking Koch is onto something here. (And if it is true for my books, I suspect it is true for yours, too.)

From within the fissure I rise, old as anything. The gravel beneath me slides. — Flow
Once I saw a vixen and a dog fox dancing. It was on the other side of the cul-de-sac, past the Gunns' place, through the trees, where the stream draws a wet line in spring. — Undercover
In the summer my mother grew zinnias in her window boxes and let fireflies hum through our back door. She kept basil alive in ruby-colored glasses and potatoes sprouting tentacles on the sills. — House of Dance

There are the things that have been and the things that haven't happened yet. There is the squiggle of a line between, which is the color of caution, the color of the bird that comes to my window every morning, rattling me awake with the hammer of its beak. — Nothing but Ghosts
What I remember now is the bunch of them running: from the tins, which were their houses. Up the white streets, which were the color of bone. — The Heart Is Not a Size
 From up high, everything seems to spill from itself. Everything is shadowed. — Dangerous Neighbors
My house is a storybook house. A huff-and-a-puff-and-they'll-blow-it-down house. — You Are My Only

The streets of Seville are the size of sidewalks, and there are alleys leaking off from the streets. In the back of the cab, where I sit by myself, I watch the past rushing by. — Small Damages

There was a story Francis told about two best friends gone swimming, round about Beiderman's Point, back of Petty's Island, along the crooked Delaware. "Fred Spowhouse," he'd say, his breath smelling like oysters and hay. "Alfred Edwards." The two friends found drowned and buckled together, Spowhouse clutched up tight inside Edwards's feckless arms. — Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla Resolvent

We live with ghosts. We live with thugs, dodgers, punkers, needle ladies, pork knuckle. — Going Over

If you could see me. If you were near. — One Thing Stolen

Sidenote: In every case, the first two sentences of my books existed within the book in draft one. Sometimes they weren't posted right up front in early drafts. But they always eventually got there.


Liviania said...

What an interesting idea! I know when I'm reading, I like to get hooked by the very opening.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

This is fascinating, Beth. I've always known the first few sentences are all-important, but never realized the entire world of the book would be contained in those first two sentences. Now I will look at the books I read (and the books I attempt to write) in an entirely new way.

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