Great Novel First Lines: Part 3

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

This one’s harder to analyze. Yet I think it qualifies as a terrific opening line for a haunting, even painful novel. I’m interested in how it does the work of leading me into such a book.

Two things stand out. First and simplest, “had once been” tells us that normalcy is endangered. Something staid and familiar is no more. Gymnasiums, those places that for me signify high-school PE with its silly short jumpsuits and sweaty-sock smells, Friday-night basketball games with their creaky bleachers and more sweaty smells, assemblies and pep rallies with their innocent pom-pom dances showcasing the popular girls: all no more. I see in my mind’s eye a building clawed at by vines and surrounded by crumbling brick, toppled trees, things that rustle in the overgrown grass.

There’s no reason, necessarily, to see the gymnasium this way. Except for “[w]e slept” there. Now, when do people sleep in gyms? After disasters, when the gym opens up as a shelter. So there has been a disaster, a loss. But not a recent, temporary one. In that case, the sentence would have read, “We slept in the gymnasium.” Because even after a hurricane, the gym will supposedly go back to being a gym. No, “what had once been” cuts off that line of speculation. This gym is done.

Do I think from this line that gyms in general are done? There’s such a hint, again from the fact that “we slept” there. This is a world in which people, this “we,” need a place to sleep and this is what they are given. A gym. Hard floors, cots at best, echoing barracks-like atmosphere. Moreover, we’re asked to compare this world where people sleep in gyms with a world in which “the gymnasium” is a familiar environment that doesn’t have to be explained. We all know what a gymnasium is. But “the gymnasium,” that fixture of every high-school and college campus, is not a place where people sleep.

So why do they sleep there? The novel’s promise is to tell us. What disaster of what magnitude is conjured by “had once been”?

The word “once” does work of its own: “Once upon a time.” Loooonng time ago. Once there were trees and a river (apocalyptic 1961 song from the Limelighters). All by itself, the word “once” used in this time sense speaks of things long gone and not coming back, except in dreams.

It conjures mythology as well. A time when monsters and gods roamed. The “once” referred to in this sentence, though, is not the time of gods and monsters; this “once” is ordinary time. Yet, that hint of myth gently infuses the sentence: perhaps there will be gods and monsters—if not then, now.

“We” is easy. I am teased into wanting to know who “we” are. Will I see myself in that “we” at some point? There will be a lot of us; it takes a gym to accommodate us. Alternatively, “we” could be a couple of vagabonds who have sought shelter on this ruined campus. Or “we” could be a platoon of soldiers on the march. Either way, “we” are not reposing on satin pillows, under silk sheets. We are not here by choice; the gym is not Club Med. I sense a stop along the way to somewhere more permanent for this “we,” and I both fear and want to know where the next stop will be.

It occurs to me that the word “gymnasium” and not “gym” hints at foreignness–a time with which I am not all that familiar. A time when calling things by their formal names may offer some touchstone, some anchor, in a world where expectations are adrift.

That this sentence is so short, that it doesn’t explain itself, also adds to its accomplishment. It’s a bald statement of fact that the speaker accepts. There’s no protest, no sign of a need to “show” lurid details. I’ve made the case that there’s nothing mundane in this situation, yet the speaker’s revelation could not itself be more ordinary: There was this former gymnasium and that’s where we slept. Not dozed, rested, napped. Connotations held at arms’ length. As in the first line from Paris Trout, it’s in the ordinary that we’re promised doom.

And it’s in the way the ordinary is dropped without context into this most nebulous “we” and “once,” both untethered, that the unsettling contrast emerges.

I note that I’ve been focusing on first lines of novels of suspense and mystery. That says something about my own preferences, of course. But I wrote a paper in grad school arguing that all fiction is ultimately mystery, and certainly it’s all suspense. There’s always something that has to be found out, by the characters, by the reader, and whether or not it’s found out in time is what we read to know.

But for next time, I have one that’s not a mystery/suspense novel.

What are your candidates for “best first lines”? Why?

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Filed under Learning to write, novel first lines, Writing and teaching writing

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