Great First Lines, Part IV

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.

A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

To me, this is the most subtle first line of all, in the promise it makes, and it’s the only one of the four examples that is not, on its face, a novel of violence, mystery, or suspense. Yet, despite receiving no promise of violent conflict, I remember this as one of the most arresting first pages of a novel I had ever read–arresting and disorienting. In both those ways, this sentence is a fitting start to this arresting and disorienting book.

I say disorienting because Egan does not give us a straightforward narrative experience. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a collection of loosely linked episodes in the characters’ lives. This method is not unfamiliar to modern readers, but it still demands a relinquishing of expectations and an understanding that whatever narrative thread emerges has to be one we, as readers, invent ourselves.

The construction of this first line invites us to do some such construction. This construction is not uncommon in fiction, memoir, history. In such syntax, we are promised that we will soon know what “it” is, and what the “usual” way is. Yet there’s a hint in this grammatical choice that what we are about to be given is not unfamiliar to us. The narrator (the character? We don’t know yet) confesses to a history of experiencing whatever “it” is often enough to have a “usual” expectation of what is to follow. We’re invited to imagine that this history is somewhere behind us as well, so that we have this hint of an expectation of our own. We share a history with a character who has not yet been named; we cannot name this person, yet we share a “usual” history, and somewhere low in our souls we feel we should know what “it” is. And this is a history that involves bathrooms in hotels.

What sorts of “usuals” happen in bathrooms? We are invited to think about our own usuals in bathrooms. Not, I would argue, necessarily physical usuals, because this bathroom is specifically a hotel bathroom. Bathrooms not in your own home can easily be places where you go to slip away for a few moments, to “freshen up.” To remake yourself slightly. To catch your breath. Hiding places–sometimes consciously, sometimes not. They are often places with large mirrors. In them we get to inspect who we are.

Did Egan mean us to make these connections? It doesn’t matter. The hotel bathroom, for me, evokes a clean well-lighted place where we emerge from our necessaries to a space of inspection, of judgment, where we check to make sure our hair is tamed or our ties straight. Writers are only partially responsible for the connotations they inspire. But the invitation into the story (admittedly, I know from having read the rest of the novel exactly what the “usual” is) could have taken place in a grocery store checkout line as easily as a hotel bathroom. So the setting does matter. This character is in a hotel, not the grocery store. Using the bathroom, so not a guest at the hotel, but rather a visitor, a transient. He or she is not At Home.

“Usual,” as well, seems to refer not just to some habitual act, but one that takes place in these hotel way stations. These sets of acts begin in bathrooms. Perhaps that’s not quite necessarily true—they could begin in grocery stores as well. But the grammar of the sentence allows us to link the acts with the hotel bathrooms. As if these are acts that are performed in a stop along a way, a place one dives into, then out again. The word “anonymity” occurs.

After all, how many times have we all heard someone come and go while we are locked away, ourselves unseen and even, sometimes, unsuspected? The door opens, footsteps, the creak of a stall door down the row, a rush of urination, the whine of the toilet paper roll, footsteps, a hiss of water and of a hot-air hand dryer–then a door closing and silence. Have you ever sat in the stall and wished you could wait until the other person had gone? You are too normal to wait; you operate on your own timetable, indifferent to the issues of privacy inherent in public bathrooms. Yet—in such spaces people pass close to each other in densely intimate contexts, but, in fact, have no desire to be intimate. Public bathrooms are where strangers both enact their commonality and refuse it.

This is the “usual” place where this story begins.

And it begins in not just any hotel. It begins in the Lassimo hotel. My unabridged dictionary’s translation section does not give me a specific reference for “lassimo,” but the cognates are there in the word. Lassitude. Que lastima. Sadness, lethargy, an inability to extract oneself from something dragging on one. A usual that overakes.

What promises do these evocations make? I suggest that they’re embodied in the power of the word “began.” In this single five-letter word is the promise of story, and story carries with it its own promises: when we’re going to be told a story, we draw up a chair and plan for a stay. There’s going to be a payoff. But implicit in “began the usual way” is an irony. We know the “usual”—we’re invited to assume we do. But this usage signals that there’s going to be a deviation. Beginning will be usual; we’re part of the history. But we’re about to be taken on a detour. This book will not take us on our usual path.

So the promise that emerges is this: This sentence portends a story of an effort to emerge—a hope of one day being able to emerge—into a space without worrying what will be revealed. To feel “the usual” beginning and not feel trapped by it. In a way, that is what the novel delivers, both for the characters and for the readers. Nothing can be fully predicted from this beginning. The character has retreated, has seen a self-image in that mirror, has experienced the terror of an intimacy that cannot be enacted, and is launched into an investigation of why.

Of course, I know what comes next, and I’m noticing that that knowledge colors my reading of this sentence in ways that my reading of the other three first lines I looked at were not colored. In the other three cases, it had been a long while since I read the novels, and I was able to respond to the first lines somewhat separately from my knowledge of the story to come. I can’t read this line as someone who hasn’t read the novel might read it. So–if you haven’t read the novel, how do you read this isolated sentence? What do you hear in it that differs from what I hear?

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