Thursday, July 31, 2008

Great opening sentences: an occasional series

Archie and Rose McLaverty staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes rattling down from the Sierra Madre, water named not for miniature and obnoxious flora but for P.H. Weed, a gold seeker who had starved near its source.

Not counting a short epigraph about how many pioneers simply failed and were forgotten, and the subheading 'Archie and Rose. 1885', this is the first sentence of 'Them Old Cowboy Songs' from Annie Proulx's new book of short stories, Fine Just the Way It Is.

An alert reader -- and this is the kind of exercise we used to do in university English Departments while they were still called English Departments and before capital-T Theory took hold -- would be able to have a bash at identifying the date of composition and possibly even the writer.

For example, if you were to set this sentence as such an exercise today, any student lucky enough to have read a bit of Proulx already -- especially if she or he knew there were two different mountain ranges in North America called the Sierra Madre (I've just had to Google this, myself) and one of them is in Wyoming, a state closely identified with Proulx and her work, especially after Brokeback Mountain -- might be able to identify the writer from the setting, from the style, or from the detailed, focused attention to landscape and the inextricable relationship of landscape to character.

(In fact, this is precisely the sort of passage that used to be set in exams as a trap for young players who might confidently mis-identify it as having been written in the 19th century. In the Adelaide U Eng Dept in the mid-1970s they used to do this tricksy business a lot, setting us things like a chunk of very early D. H. Lawrence that nobody had ever actually read, from a time when his style was not yet fully formed, or a poem containing the classical name of a major character in one of the four plays in our Shakespeare course but actually written in 1840, which almost everybody fell for and identified as Elizabethan, a mere two and a half centuries out. In Adelaide we called this kind of exercise Practical Criticism; in Melbourne they called it Dating, which South Australians and Americans thought was hilarious.)

Anyway, the one-word answer to 'What makes this a great opening sentence?' is 'Grammar', but talking about grammar always gets me into trouble so let's look at some other things.

It sets the scene by answering the questions Who, When ('staked out a homestead' points to the time frame) and Where. It comes up with names that manage to sound natural and convincing, a problem all writers wrestle with (though this is easier if you're writing about the 19th century and names like Alice, William, Jeremiah and Mary Ann are there for the taking). It subtly predicts the likely fate of Archie and Rose (look what happened to the last guy), and it suggests the sinister but all too likely possibility that P.H. Weed decomposed into the river: a river poisoned at its source, a powerful metaphor for all things that are doomed from the beginning.


Anonymous said...

I agree that Proulx is a fab writer - landscape desciptions beyond compare. I nearly froze to death reading 'The Shipping News'.

But, on the matter of proper Grammar at which I am a bit rusty - would there be a case for using a semi-colon instead of a comma between 'Sierra Madre' and 'water' ?


Pavlov's Cat said...

Before I answer that I should make it clear that when I say 'grammar' I don't mean 'good' or 'correct' grammar so much as sentences in which the words have been put together beautifully and carefully into a style that manages to be both simple and highly individual at the same time.

Re semicolon, I wouldn't put one there myself. Since the word 'water' there refers to the Little Weed, which is obviously a river or stream or creek, that second clause after the comma is just giving extra information about said river. It's the same kind of grammatical construction and the same kind of comma as, say, 'Then I fed Tiddles, a feline who always lets me know when she's hungry.'

If you use a semicolon, the things on either side of it should each be a full grammatical sentence with a subject and predicate and an active verb, which isn't the case here. I suppose you could use a full colon (as it were; ew) if you really wanted to, though. See here for details.

klaus k said...

Wow, she is good. This sentence (and the other passage) manage so much with so little. It is a real lesson for those of us hoping to improve our writing - and with the added bonus of some tips on readerly alertness and sentence construction from our host. Thank you, Dr Cat.

dogpossum said...

I love Proulx too. I devoured her when Shipping News came out. But she's a bit dark and miserable. A bit like ... um... can't remember her name (and haven't sorted bookshelves yet to find the books), but she wrote 'Accidental Tourist'. Both of them make me really depressed if I read them in big blocks. Have to squeeze something lighter and happier in between.

Deborah said...

I enjoyed your discussion of that sentence so much.

Can you do it again sometime, please?

Beth said...

I like the idea of dating that sentence (even already knowing the answer!) - for example, I think it feels very modern, even though it's clearly set in the past. Something about the fast cutting between bits of information, the rapid roll of the sentence's rhythm.

Proulx can get so much space into such economical frameworks. I'm really starting to think the short story is the ultimate literary form.

Thanks for the sentence and the thoughts!

Ann O'Dyne said...

I love punctuation and I sprinkle it over my sentences like nonpareils on cupcake icing.

Raymon Chandler craps allover Proulx, Proust and all the rest.

Ann O'Dyne said...

Back now from finding a Chandler opener:
"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your sking itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge."-- "Red Wind" (opening paragraph)

"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world."--"The Simple Art of Murder" (essay)

... and there's plenty more where they came from.
This this the man whose work gave Joni Mitchell 'the hissing of summer lawns"

Pavlov's Cat said...

Well indeed, I love him myself.

'It must have been Friday because the fish smell from the Mansion House coffee-shop next door was strong enough to build a garage on. Apart from that it was a nice warm day in spring, the tail of the afternoon, and there hadn't been any business in a week. I had my heels in the groove on my desk and was sunning my ankles in a wedge of sunlight when the phone rang. I took my hat off it and made a yawning sound into the mouthpiece.'

TimT said...

I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Those two sentences, right there, may have been what first hooked me to Chandler.

If grammar gets you into trouble, then it would get me a death sentence. But this post did get me thinking about how often the greatest quotes contain little else but simple, functional words like 'am', 'was', 'the'. For instance - 'I am what I am'. 'I am not what I am.''To be or not to be'. 'Never, never, never, never, never'. Shakespeare was so good at this that he could write whole passages containing simple, functional one- or two-syllable words. In his sonnets, he more or less succeeded in treating his own name in this way.

The text-dating game sounds jolly fun, and I may very well have to do a blog version sometime.