Sunday, April 6, 2008

First Paragraphs: Stories from The New Yorker.

[Five] New Yorker Stories: first paragraphs

Ungraded papers pile up as the end of the term draws near. Taking time to canvas South Philly as a volunteer for Obama (knocked on 157 doors yesterday). Piling up as well, unread New Yorker stories. I stare at them, wondering what I might do for Sunday Salon. No time to read them all. I looked at the titles, the authors, the accompanying illustrations, still couldn't make up my mind. With so little time, I wanted something that would reward my effort: how to choose? In the end, I gave up. Gave up the idea of reading an entire story, that is. Instead, I resorted to reviewing only the first paragraph of each of them. What might I discover? Would they fall into classifiable patterns, categories? How accurately would they predict the incident and action in the rest of the story? I thought, if I take these nine paragraphs, write first about each one, then go back and compare, and last of all, read the stories to see how much I gotten from that one paragraph--the experiment would be reward enough even for the dullest and most conventional the lot. Best of all, I would have to do this in one sitting. What if, I thought, I post paragraph and comments of three stories, then, between grading papers, add another when I need a break. If I don't finish all nine by the end of the day, there no reason I can't add the rest on Monday or Tuesday, and when I find time to read the stories--another source for fresh posts.

I don't expect much in the way of Eureka Moments. If there turns out to be any value to the exercise, it will be cumulative as material for comparison is added.

Here are the first three( 4,5). As I add to this post, I'll change the number at the top, that way, if you're interested, you will know when fresh material has been added..

"Leaving for Kenosha"
Richard Ford
The New Yorker, March 3, 2008
It was the anniversary of the disaster. Walter Hobbes was on his way uptown to pick up his daughter, Louise, at Trinity. She had the dentist at four. Then the two of them were going for a hilariously early dinner at the place Louise liked—Papa Andre’s—out on the Chef Highway, a roadhouse on stilts that the flood had missed. Then they were going back to his condo for her homework and a Bill Murray movie. This was New Orleans.

81 words
6 Sentences
13.5. wps avg

Paragraph's primary contribution: Situational exposition. Slice of life, New Orleans, post-Katrina.
Narrative Voice: 3rd Person
Narrative Time: Narrative past, simultaneous with action.
.Description: Stage direction, sociological and pop identifiers.
Characters introduced: Two named, not including Bill Murry
Language: Simple sentences, or with prepositional clauses, two multi-leveled. Unornamented. No figurative language.
Dialog None

Anticipate: plot-driven, intimate personal story against (distant) backdrop of historical natural disaster with (probably) minimal psychological exploration. Idea level: stuff happens and people go about their business. Conventional realism.

(4) "The Visitor
Marisa Silver
The New Yorker, December 3, 2007
The new boy was three-quarters gone. Both legs below the knee and the left arm at the shoulder. Candy spent her lunch hour lying on the lawn outside the V.A. hospital, sending nicotine clouds into the cloudless sky, wondering whether it would be better to have one leg and no arms—or, if you were lucky enough to have an arm and a leg left, whether it would be better to have them on opposite sides, for balance. In her six months as a nurse’s aide, she had become thoughtful about the subtle hierarchy of human disintegration. Blind versus deaf—that was a no-brainer, no brain being perhaps the one wound in her personal calculus that could not be traded in for something worse.
It was sad. Of course it was sad. But she didn’t feel sad. Sad was what people said they were in the face of tragedies as serious as suicide bombings or as minor as a lost earring. It was a word that people used to tidy up and put the problem out of sight.

124 words
13.7 wps avg.

Paragraph Overview:
This one jumped out at me. It was not the shocking condition of the patient, but how it was announced. Plain, matter of fact. Admirable restraint, and then it's left behind--the boy, his body three-quarters gone--or rather, further objectified, transformed in the protagonist's reflections to an abstract problem which she examines--as insubstantial as the nicotine clouds she sends up "into the cloudless sky" on her lunch break. Here's something to work on--this terrible contradiction of consciousness faced with a reality which consciousness cannot assimilate, a reality that stands nakedly beyond the power of imagination to tame. I couldn't stop with just one. I slid the index card down the page to read paragraph two. This one I look forward to reading. Will it live up to its promise?

Narrative Voice: Limited 1st Person
Narrative Time: Indefinite story-telling present.
Narrated Time: Indefinite narrative past
.Description: Spare, interior.
Characters introduced: Narrator, named. Unnamed patient, "boy."
Language: Minimalist. Ironic condensation. Subject matter: strongly affective--balanced by equally powerful aesthetic, philosophical distance.

Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject: Both sentences in Par. 2. Reminded of Addie Bundrun. A woman who has given birth has no need of the word, "mother." Reality guts the words that draw to near and leaves them hollow... how then to speak, to write... and of what? We are left with no alternative, but indirection.

Dialog None

This one promises to be a grabber!

The Bell Ringer, John Burnside
The New Yorker March 17, 2008

Contributors: (...poet and novelist. His latest novel, "The Devil's Footprints," was published in January.) Suspicion this is novel exert: high.

Half a mile beyond the sign for Lathockar mill, Eva Lowe turned off the main coastal road and took the back way through Kinaldy woods. It wasn’t the most direct route into the village, but her father had always liked that stretch of road, maybe because it reminded him of Slovakia, and they’d often come this way on their Sunday walks, when her mother was still alive. It was dark, out on the narrow lane that ran past the sawmills, dark and very green, the boundary wall a dim colony of moss and ferns, the shadows under the trees damp and still. To most people, it seemed gloomy, but for Eva it was as close to the landscape of home as she could imagine—especially now, with new snow settling on the pines and on the ridges of the drystone wall, so that the land resembled nothing so much as a children’s-book illustration, the snow steady and insistent in a kingdom that had succumbed to the bad fairy’s spell and slept for a hundred years in a viridian web of gossamer and thorns. Her father had always loved that story, and she still had the book he had read to her from, the one he’d bought because it reminded him of home. Those pictures were her one real memento of him, page after page of watercolors from a world that, even before she opened the book for the first time, was gone forever, leaf green and sky blue and damson, wiped out by a tide of cattle trucks and unmarked graves.

261 words
6 sentences
43.5 wps avg.

Paragraph's primary contribution: Exposition
Narrative Voice: Limited 3rd
Narrative Time: Present.
Past recollected.
Description: immediate and recollected.
Link present to past.
Characters introduced: 1 present, 1 remembered. Both named
Language: conventional, some ornamentation, mood evocative.
"...viridian web of gossamer and thorns."
Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject:
" Those pictures were her one real memento of him, page after page of watercolors from a world that, even before she opened the book for the first time, was gone forever, leaf green and sky blue and damson, wiped out by a tide of cattle trucks and unmarked graves.
Dialog None
Anticipated story: Good-bye, Daddy! Conventional Realism

"The Reptile Garden"
Louise Erdrich.
The New Yorker, January 28, 2008
Contributor profile notes Erdrich only as novelist (?) Suspicion this is novel exert, moderate

In the fall of 1972, my parents drove me to the University of North Dakota for my freshman year. Everything I needed was packed in a brand-new royal-blue aluminum trunk: a crazy-quilt afghan that my mother had crocheted for my bed, thirty dollars’ worth of new clothes, my Berlitz French Self-Teacher, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (a gift from my father), a framed photograph of my grandfather Mooshum, and a beaded leather tobacco pouch that he had owned ever since I could remember, and which he had casually handed to me as I left, the way old men give presents.

100 words
2 sentences
50 wps avg

Paragraph's primary contributions to story: Exposition:
Narrative Voice: 1st Person, assumed female (the afghan bed spread)
Narrative Time: Present, after-the-fact
Narrated Time: Past, 30+ years after
.Descriptive convention: the evocative List
Characters introduced: Narrator, unnamed.
Language: conventional. POV, outsider (?)
Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject: The List sentence.
Dialog None
Anticpated subject and theme: Coming-of-age story, Native-American assimilation. Likely, first sexual experience. Narrator learns the meaning of Amor Fati.

Ha Jin
"The House Behind a Weeping Cherry"
The New Yorker, April 7, 2008
Contributors notes: "...has published three short-story collections and five novels, including "A Free Life," which came out in October. Suspicion this is novel exert: low

When my roommate moved out, I was worried that Mrs. Chen might increase the rent. I had been paying three hundred dollars a month for half a room. If my landlady demanded more, I would have to look for another place. I liked this Colonial house, before which stood an immense weeping cherry tree that attracted birds and gave a bucolic impression, though it was already early summer and the blossoming season had passed. In spite of its peaceful aura, the house was close to downtown Flushing, and you could hear the burr of traffic on Main Street. It was also near where I worked, convenient for everything. Mrs. Chen took up the first floor; my room was upstairs, where three young women also lived. My former roommate, an apprentice to a carpenter, had left because the three female tenants were prostitutes and often received clients in the house. To be honest, I didn’t feel comfortable about that, either, but I had grown used to the women, and especially liked Huong, a twiggy Vietnamese in her early twenties, whose parents had migrated to Cholon from China three decades ago, when Saigon fell and the real-estate market there became affordable. Also, I was new to New York, and at times it was miserable to be alone.

215 words
19 wps avg.

Paragraph's primary contributions: Exposition
Narrative Voice: 1st Person
Narrative Time:. Recollected past
.Description: Setting, characters
Characters introduced or mentioned: 2 named, 4 unnamed, including Narrator
Language: Conventional Realism. Minimalist
Sentence that seems most pregnant with story theme and subject:
None: depends on cumulative effect.
Dialog None
Anticipated story: will center on changing configurations of relationships, narrator to other characters; the evocation of place absorbing incidents and persons as primary symbol of an season in a life. Anticipate story of Vietnamese prostitute, Huong, will not end happily.


  1. What a great idea! I have a subscription to the NewYorker too, but very often find their fiction disappointing, such that I don't even bother reading it much anymore. That said, if you haven't read the recent Rivka Galchen story, you're in for a treat! I haven't read any of the three you highlighted, though my partner said the John Burnside wasn't great. Looking forward to more opening paras!


  2. The Rivka Galchen story is in my pile; I pick them up at random, but that's one I'll be add to my post.