"I was driving a Lexus through a rustling wind."
October 28, 2002 10:40 PM   Subscribe

"I was driving a Lexus through a rustling wind." Did anyone recognize the opening sentence of Don DeLillo's Underworld? First lines often set the tone for a whole novel but they're fun on their own too. So, after reading this article by John Mullan, I found this interesting quiz to test my identification skills. Well! The warm-up exercises are recommended for giving you a false sense of security, btw... And here's a bonus quiz for Faulkner fans. Just one example: "The jury said "Guilty" and the Judge said "Life" but he didn't hear them." They don't get much better than that, do they?
posted by Carlos Quevedo (36 comments total)
I should add that the answers on the Faulkner quiz don't work, bwahahahaha!
posted by Carlos Quevedo at 10:45 PM on October 28, 2002

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

One of my faves, from memory. Oh, also:

"A screaming comes across the sky."

posted by adamgreenfield at 10:55 PM on October 28, 2002

Cool post! Here is another list of first-lines from some recent (and not so recent) novels compiled at scottdavidherman.com.
posted by dhoyt at 11:14 PM on October 28, 2002

Hmm, scottdavidherman got the first line of 'And You Shall Know Our Velocity' wrong... it begins on the front cover with "Everything within take place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned..." and continues onto the inside. Funny, the first few times I took the book out it didn't click that the narrator was dead, I unconciously kinda glazed over the text on the cover.

And that Neuromancer quote was the second to come to my mind (after "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan...")... although I do feel it's a little gimmicky to use a "grab you" first line... compare "White Noise" begins simply enough with "The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus."
posted by bobo123 at 11:54 PM on October 28, 2002

I'm a great fan of last lines as well. Is there anyone who doesn't know about the wonderful GIGA-USA website, the worst-named interesting website in the whole wide world? Here's Jane Austen, for instance. Whereas the first line is often justly celebrated:

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters."

The last line, in my opinion, is even better:

"With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them."
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:08 AM on October 29, 2002

From Pride And Prejudice, of course. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 12:09 AM on October 29, 2002

A favourite "last line(s)" of mine, from Goethe's "Die Leiden Des Jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther)":

Um zwölfe mittags starb er. Die Gegenwart des Amtmannes und seine Anstalten tuschten einen Auflauf. Nachts gegen eilfe ließ er ihn an die Stätte begraben, die er sich erwählt hatte. Der Alte folgte der Leiche und die Söhne, Albert vermocht's nicht. Man fürchtete für Lottens Leben. Handwerker trugen ihn. Kein Geistlicher hat ihn begleitet.

which translates roughly thus:

"At twelve noon he died. The presence of the judge and the arrangements he made silenced the crowd. That night, at about eleven, the judge had the body buried on the site Werther had chosen. The old man and his sons followed behind the bier; Albert was unable to will himself to do so. They feared for Lotte's life. Workmen carried the body. There was no priest in attendance."
posted by sir walsingham at 1:24 AM on October 29, 2002

My favourite opening line:

"It was the day my grandmother exploded."

from The Crow Road by Iain Banks.
posted by rainking at 3:27 AM on October 29, 2002

No, I didn't recognize it, probably because it's not the first sentence of Underworld. The true first line is "He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful."

The Lexus doesn't arrive until the start of Part I, on Page 63.
posted by grimmelm at 5:10 AM on October 29, 2002

I've always loved the Bulwer-Lytton contest of bad opening paragraphs, previously discussed here (warning: put down your glass of milk before reading).
posted by fuzz at 5:38 AM on October 29, 2002

Call me Ishmael.

Always a favorite of mine (and the first thing to come to mind when anyone brings up first lines).
posted by trox at 6:08 AM on October 29, 2002

I've always been a fan of "Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns," the opening line of _The Friends of Eddie Coyle_ by the vastly underappreciated and very much missed George V. Higgins.

And thank you, MiguelCardoso, for the GIGA-USA link. Somehow in all these years noodling around on the web, I'd missed that one.
posted by mojohand at 6:10 AM on October 29, 2002

Yup, it's true. You better hook 'em in fast, or they'll get away.

How does the Irish round-robin book Yeats is Dead start off? "I think he was dead before I shot him" ?

Maybe we should all practice here. How about,
"The blue carp was swimming slowly through the air toward my face..."

Does that work for you?
posted by Shane at 6:25 AM on October 29, 2002

I'm suprised noone has mentioned Tom Robbins yet. In my opinion, he is the master of the opening line... I just wish I could remember some exact quotes.
posted by ScottUltra at 6:49 AM on October 29, 2002

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson.
posted by carter at 6:50 AM on October 29, 2002

ONCE upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.... A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
posted by Ufez Jones at 7:07 AM on October 29, 2002

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

I can repeat it, in Greek, by heart
posted by matteo at 7:30 AM on October 29, 2002

In Miguel's honor, the closing line

Thus, then, did they celebrate the funeral of Hector
tamer of horses.

posted by matteo at 7:36 AM on October 29, 2002

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
posted by rushmc at 7:47 AM on October 29, 2002

Just about my favorite of all time:

"He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad."

"Scaramouche", Rafael Sabatini

In the Kafka translation used by my university, the opening lines of "Metamorphosis" ended with "transformed into some hideous form of vermin." -- which I still prefer for pure shivers over "giant insect".
posted by dharmamaya at 8:06 AM on October 29, 2002

Dickens has so many memorable opening lines, probably more than any other author. My favorite:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

Don't we all wonder whether we are the heroes of our own lives?

And when I think of opening lines, I always flash back to Stephen King's 2 page analysis in Danse Macabre of the first paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

"I think there are few if any descriptive passages in the English language that are any finer than this; it is the sort of quiet epiphany every writer hopes for: words that somehow transcend words, words which add up to a total greater than the sum of their parts."

Man, that is some kind of opening paragraph!
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:55 AM on October 29, 2002

heres a clav bonus:

"One summer afternoon Mrs. Xxxxxx Xxxx came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess has put perhaps to much kitsch in the fondue..."

name that novel. (I x'd out the name as to make it not so easy)
great link CQ. I welcome your posts. You and Miguel
are putting great literary resources on MeFi for all to enjoy.
posted by clavdivs at 10:13 AM on October 29, 2002

thank you thank you rushmc for the Garcia Marquez quote! I thought I'd have to look it up online (or wait till I got home to consult my edition.)

My other favorite:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

(1984, 'course.)
posted by Vidiot at 10:57 AM on October 29, 2002

...transformed into some hideous form of vermin.

My favorite translation has it "...transformed into a monstrous vermin." Which is very nice, I think.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:10 AM on October 29, 2002

That thar's The Crying of Lot 49, yes?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 11:18 AM on October 29, 2002

Yeah, I like "monstrous vermin" too. Funny, there really is no way to translate the original "...zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt," but I think something of the shudder comes through even if you don't know German. Just say it out loud, hitting the first syllables hard: OONgeheueren OONgetsiefer. Brrr.

Oh, and how about the first line of Richard Powers' Plowing the Dark:
This room is never anything o'clock.
posted by languagehat at 11:23 AM on October 29, 2002

we have a winner-PST. nice work
posted by clavdivs at 11:30 AM on October 29, 2002

Oh, and this should be mentioned, I suppose:

"All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
posted by mr_roboto at 11:46 AM on October 29, 2002

among my favorite openings:

The first thing I remember is being under something. It was a table, I saw a table leg, I saw the legs of the people, and a portion of tablecloth hanging down. It was dark under there.

and fave closing (diff book):

There is no orchestra, no audience; it is an empty theater in the middle of the night and all of the clocks in the world are ticking. And now for this last time, Jade, I don't mind, or even ask if it is madness: I see your face, I see you, you: I see you in every seat.


(thanks for the link, CQ)
posted by dobbs at 12:55 PM on October 29, 2002

OK, can anybody identify this one (following up on mr_roboto's)?

"'All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,' says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880)."

On preview: The second one is Endless Love.
posted by languagehat at 12:57 PM on October 29, 2002

Ada. Nabokov was a great opener; there are few books with openings that can match the first page of Lolita for impact, appeal, and power.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:17 PM on October 29, 2002

Hmm, scottdavidherman got the first line of 'And You Shall Know Our Velocity' wrong... it begins on the front cover with "Everything within take place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned..." and continues onto the inside.

The front cover sentences struck me as being more of a prologue or a epigraph than an opening sentence proper: they seem written to appear specifically on the cover of a book ("Everything within..."), not to begin the story. But if subsequent editions of the novel (if there are any) include the cover's sentences inside the book, in the first paragraph, then I'll change what I've got on the reading list.

Cool thread. A consistently excellent writer of first sentences is T.C. Boyle, whose stories have opened with such specimens as "There was no exchange of body fluids on the first date, and that suited both of us just fine." and "They sent a hit squad after the bear."
posted by Scotch at 2:24 PM on October 29, 2002

"I was born in a house my father built."
--opening line of the Memoirs of Richard Nixon
posted by Rebis at 3:50 PM on October 29, 2002

I'm fond of opening sentences which begin in media res, so to speak-- like "Then there was the bad weather." Or "Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year." Or of abrupt beginnings like "One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister." or "None of them knew the color of the sky." Or "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." But in other moods my favorite first line is "I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am a most unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased."

My favorite last lines are the conclusion to The Dead (which also has one of the cleverest opening lines as a bonus).
posted by octobersurprise at 7:27 PM on October 29, 2002

First line: "What's it going to be then, eh?"

Last line: "I was cured all right."

An easy one to guess, I suppose.


"It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced he expression "As pretty as an airport."

...another favourite opening line, from Douglas Adams' "The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul."
posted by sir walsingham at 9:03 PM on October 29, 2002

Well done, mr_roboto -- you know the moderns as well as the classics! In homage, here's the original of your quote:

"Vse schastlívye sem'í pohózhi drug na druga, kázhdaya neschastlívaya sem'yá neschastlíva po-svóemu."
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on October 30, 2002

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