Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Bell by Iris Murdoch

Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him.

We are almost up to 300 reviews of novel openings and in that time we have yet to come across the perfect opening line, opening paragraph, etc., with only 23 getting four stars. Time and again, we are confronted with cliched scenes, melodramatic syntax, vague pronounology, preamble, ramble and babble. The great writers are slowly dying off and being replaced by wannabe celebrities and PR wizards masquerading as writers, (after all, anyone can put words to paper, right? So why don't you be a writer, too!) who are clogging up the New York Times bestseller list. Manipulated consumers are eating it up, their brains slowly corroded by TV, as our standards deteriorate. I don't know, maybe writers are trying too hard to hook, mistaking their opening to be nothing more than a marketing ploy rather than the beginning of a character's story.

The above opening sentence of The Bell by Iris Murdoch illustrates just how easy it is to craft an opening sentence that hooks. It's almost sublime. We have two characters, conflict, foreshadowing and back story - in that they were married but aren't anymore. This sentence not only raises questions but it also introduces the psychological landscape of two characters. However, it is the question this sentence raises that hooks: Why is she afraid of him? There are no cliched scenes, no mere pronouns, no preamble, no weather, no pretty words painting a printed landscape, no pompous insinuations of ideas an author believes only he or she is privy to - just a character with a problem: fear.

The very next sentence in the novel contains the first plot twist:

She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason.

I love how sentence 2 in the novel turns the plot upside down. This line raises more questions, as it doesn't make much sense. Why be afraid to be apart when she was afraid to be with him? In these first two little sentences there is a juxtaposition of action which suggests irrational internal conflict, and that someone is overwhelmed with fear - stuck in the damnable position of being damned if they do, and damned if they don't. How could this not hook? Two sentences in and readers are sympathizing with Dora and by the end of the first paragraph we learn that Paul is haunting her with letters and phone calls and imagined footsteps.

First thing said:

"Don't stay."

Dialogue comes late. I would prefer it sooner. Dialogue on the ninth page suggests that what came before is either description or back story or philosophy. In this case it is back story, beginning at the second paragraph as we are eased into the violence of her husband. Fortunately, it is back story fraught with conflict.

If it hadn't been for the large back story dumps (despite being well written with some interesting details) so soon, and a bit more showing instead of telling, this would have been the perfect five-star opening. The opening paragraph, taken by itself, is five stars.

Verdict: Cool

I chose this novel opening to review today because I'm tired of reviewing crap. I was browsing through the new releases at the library and found two books beginning the exact same way. It's exasperating and becoming so repetitive, that I begin to dread cracking open the new stuff.

Theodore Moracht

No comments:

Post a Comment