First Words II

Added on 20 October 2009

Orwell opened Animal Farm with: Mr Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes; Ishiguro opens The Remains of the Day with the words: It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.


The first words set the tone of the novel, much in the same way as  the canapes set the tone of the cocktail party. So what about the Barney Thomson novels? In the second of a three part series, Long Midnight Publishing artistic director, Elvis Shackleton discusses the opening words of each of the Barney novels with literary crime expert Professor Malcolm Laidlaw of the University of Glasgow. Today, Barney novels four to seven, plus the one-off political thriller, Lost in Juarez.


The Last Fish Supper


Opening sentence:


Jonah Harrison was the kind of guy who twisted the seatbelt every time he sat in a car.


ES: What does that even mean?


ML: The most idiosyncratic of Lindsay's opening lines. In itself it doesn't tell us much about the book, but it says so much about the character of Jonah Harrison, the man who will become the ghost that haunts the pages of this remarkable work of fiction.


ES: Doesn't it just tell us that Harrison wasn't entirely up to speed with seatbelt technology?


ML: So much more than that. Seatbelt technology in itself is incredibly simple, so what is the problem with people who twist the belt? They're careless and possibly clumsy, there's the clear implication that the person leaves the seatbelt twisted, indicating a general selfishness and complete lack of interest in others. It's a simple sentence, and yet we get a wonderful view of exactly the type of person that Jonah Harrison is. This is the opposite of exposition. I call it, counter-exposition.


ES: And this insight into Harrison's psyche has a major impact on the novel?


ML: Actually, none whatsoever, which makes it all the more fascinating.


The Haunting of Barney Thomson


Opening sentence:


Late September, the summer still clinging to the islands in the Clyde estuary.


ES: Clearly, by this stage, Lindsay has completely moved away from the sparse, almost anti-prose, of the opening lines of his first two novels.


ML: Absolutely. Now we see him going in for grand sweeping openings, where words are used like gold plating on a statue, where great statements of breadth and vision are wrapped in a coat of the finest parma ham. Here we have the late summer season, the grand opening vista of the Clyde estuary, and the magnificent use of the word clinging, so that one knows that Lindsay spent days hunched over his notebook, writing and rewriting until he'd found the perfect expression for this truly epic first sentence.


ES: I heard he wrote it in five seconds and then moved on to the iconic second sentence.


ML: That's a lie.


The Final Cut


Opening sentence:


The wind had changed.


ML: Sublime.


ES: The New York Times calls it one of the finest opening lines ever put into print.


ML: Well, yes. It's early days yet, let's remember, as this book was only released last month. But I think it's fair to say, that in time it might well come to be known as not just one of the finest opening lines, but the best opening line in a novel ever. Here he completely subverts the notion of the barbershop series and the fact that the series has become marooned on this small island in the Clyde. With a few simple words he tells us that this book is going to be different, and so it proves to be. Once again he displays his mastery of counter-exposition.


ES: So, Barney doesn't cut hair in this book.


ML: Well, yes, he cuts hair.


ES: But this time there are no gruesome murders then?


ML: Well, yes, there are a lot of murders.


ES: Gosh, that does sound different.


Lost in Juarez


Opening sentence:


The house stood on the side of a hill looking down over the glen, across the Ullapool road, out over Ben Wyvis.


ES: This one seems pedestrian.


ML: Pretty much. Fortunately it picks up by page 137.