Always Let Me Go

Investigating a Classic Novel Opening

Some novels have opening lines that may stick with you even if you’ve never cracked open the book. See if you can match these to the novel they introduce:

A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Those are, in order, the opening lines to Gravity’s Rainbow, Anna Karenina, Neuromancer, Pride and Prejudice, and of course, Ulysses. No prizes for guessing the last one, since I featured it in this very newsletter just a few weeks ago.

We remember these lines for many reasons, not the least of which is that cultural ubiquity becomes self-fulfilling, as you peg your sense of what should be notable to what already is. In the case of these five, three succinctly and tangibly usher us into the particular universe of the story—Pynchon’s rockets, Gibson’s digitally-crackling morass, Joyce’s sensuous picaresque. The other two have become classic maxims. Tolstoy and Austen take on a somewhat greater challenge by framing their novels in conceptual terms—can this story ratify the confidence (ironic or not) of its opening pronouncements?

What all five have in common, of course, is that they’re wild successes. Not only do they succeed in beginning widely beloved and lauded novels; they’ve also entered the canon in their own right, as some of the most memorable lines in the history of prose fiction. The latter could not be said of this next opening line:

My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years.

Some of you probably recognize this line. It does open a well-known novel, but the line itself doesn’t have much independent cultural currency. Here’s the full opening paragraph:

My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That'll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn't necessarily because they think I'm fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who've been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I'm not trying to boast. But then I do know for a fact they've been pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as "agitated," even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now. But it means a lot to me, being able to do my work well, especially that bit about my donors staying "calm." I've developed a kind of instinct around donors. I know when to hang around and comfort them, when to leave them to themselves; when to listen to everything they have to say, and when just to shrug and tell them to snap out of it.

If you haven’t gotten it by now, that’s the first paragraph of Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I bring this novel up a lot in this newsletter and elsewhere. I consider it one of the best novels published this century, and it’s also the novel that solidified for me that I had to try to write fiction. I read it in the hallway outside my freshman dorm room, and found it bewitching even though I couldn’t explain why. I still don’t fully understand this novel, so unadorned in its language, so organic in its plotting, and so devastating in its emotional impacts.

Because I still can’t explain the book as a whole, I’d like to try breaking down that first paragraph. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing. This piece will do its best to avoid spoilers.

The first line doesn’t offer us much aside from concrete info about the narrator. We learn that she will be speaking to us in the first person, we learn her name and age, and we learn that she’s been a “carer” for over a decade. What’s a carer? We won’t know by the end of this paragraph, or the next. We’ll be well into the book before we understand the gently sinister system in which Kathy H. is participating.

So what do we get, in lieu of world-building? We get Kathy wrestling with whether she’s good at her job. “[Over eleven years] sounds long enough, I know”—she’s defensive. But they want her to go on, which isn’t “necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do.” The “they” won’t get fleshed out much as the narrative goes on, but will remain an ominous lacuna. We don’t know that yet, but we do know that They have the power to decide when a carer stops working, and that They don’t always keep carers working because of merit: “…one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space.”

Ishiguro is daring something quietly bold here: He’s letting his narrator ramble in the very first paragraph. We might easily get bored with Kathy. She’s not offering us sumptuous sensory details, or giving us any immediate interpersonal drama or physical action. There’s nothing remarkable or even clever about her use of language. She’s frankly kind of boring. She’s doing nothing more than insecurely monologuing at us about her standing in a system she won’t even describe. What holds our attention?

Two sentences do a lot to pique our interest: “My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation.” The hovering They cause agitation in their “donors,” and do things that require recovery. So we at least know someone is being hurt. And we know that Kathy’s job is to calm the people who are being hurt. So her apparent beige-ness is clearly a cover for… something. Her own nefariousness? Maybe, maybe not, but we at least have enough evidence to doubt her, even as we’re forced to rely on her narration.

After this revelation, Kathy’s next line is “Okay, maybe I am boasting now.” She ratchets back down to rambling. Then she details how she keeps her donors calm. If we didn’t distrust her before, we do now. But we’re not sure why. Is she a dope? Is she manipulating us? All we know is that something is amiss, and we’re going to need to follow Kathy H. to find the answer.

The opening of Never Let Me Go will never be iconic. It’s the opposite of electric, and it’s not at all aphoristic or otherwise quotable. What it does do is subtly initiate us not only into the tensions within a world, but into the tensions within a character. Rambling becomes intrigue. Simple language becomes a cloak. We want to uncover what lies beneath.

So it turns out you don’t need a conventionally dynamic opening to masterfully begin a great novel. Sometimes all you need is to make us care about what a character is telling us—or not telling us.

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I’m going to take next week off from the newsletter because I have a lot to do that week. See you the week after!

Calvin and Hobbes Corner

We’re procrastinating:

Calvin has received some busywork about which he has every right to be upset. I doubt anyone is making six-year-olds collect 50 leaves, but if you are: Don’t do it. There are better ways for them to spend their time, I promise you.

This strip is about negotiating for the integrity of your time and energy against a hostile world. Yet again, I find myself looking back and considering that a lot of my jealous guarding of my own time might come from Calvin. And by extension, from Watterson, who retired early rather than seek even vaster riches. In a sense, Calvin is in the right, but as usual, he’s a utopian. Things would be easier if he just did the work, but that would require compromising on his ideal vision for how the world should be. Calvin doesn’t do that until there’s no other way forward.

Calvin always jumps down from the front door, rather than taking the steps, as we see in that first panel. Exactly how athletic is he? Based on his travails in gym class and any other formal youth sports setting, we’d have to conclude “not very.” I found this relatable at age six. But his outdoor adventures and general rambunctiousness—not to mention his ability to fight against a tiger—suggest that he’s probably a decent athlete when he’s engaged. Maybe the failure to tap into that potential is on the coaches.

A poem

Craig Arnold is understanding birds