Where to Begin?
One writer I know said a story begins on the day something different happened. Another said the story begins where the trouble particular to the point of view starts. Another said give away everything at the beginning, the way John Irving does. Another said start with the strongest possible bit of language or the strongest sentence. Another said start in the middle. Another said start with something mysterious and compelling. Another said start with some nonsense to make the promise you’ll keep. Another said start ambiguously. Another said start unambiguously. Another said start at the end. Another said start at the beginning. My uncle committed suicide, and I wanted to write an essay about it, but I couldn’t figure out where to start, so instead of writing about my uncle’s death, I wrote about “The Question of Where We Begin.” There was no satisfactory answer to the question of where we begin. Every time the question gets asked, it raises a hundred new questions. Where did the trouble begin? If you believe, as some stories do, in a cause-and-effect chain, can’t it be traced back to the beginning of everything? What then? Isn’t this the argument they’re having in school board meetings in Kansas and Texas? And isn’t it true that by dint of deciding where you begin, you’re already giving the lie at the center of “nonfiction”? Because nothing is untouched by subjectivity, and no story doesn’t betray something about its maker?
I’m intrigued, then, by the strategies employed by an old mass market writer named James Michener, who didn’t write books about Bob or Jane or Dick or Tiger or Terry or T.J. or Tylene. He wrote novels about Texas or Poland or South Africa or Space. And with subjects so large — subjects usually tackled by historians or political philosophers geologists or geographers or journalists, rather than by novelists — wouldn’t he have to come up with a strategy that made a rather different kind of promise than “Friday morning, Evelyn woke up to find her husband dead”?
Here is the opening to Michener’s novel Hawaii:
Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others. It was a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific.
Over its brooding surface immense winds swept back and forth, whipping the waters into towering waves that crashed down upon the world’s seacoasts, tearing away rocks and eroding the land. In its dark bosom, strange life was beginning to form, minute at first, then gradually of a structure now lost even to memory. Upon its farthest reaches birds with enormous wings came to rest, and then flew on.
Agitated by a moon stronger then than now, immense tides ripped across this tremendous ocean, keeping it in a state of torment. Since no great amounts of sand had yet been built, the waters where they reached shore were universally dark, black as night and fearful.
Scores of millions of years before man had risen from the shores of the ocean to perceive its grandeur and to venture forth upon its turbulent waves, this eternal sea existed, larger than any other of the earth’s features, vaster than the sister oceans combined, wild, terrifying in its immensity and imperative in its universal role.
How utterly vast it was! How its surges modified the very balance of the earth! How completely lonely it was, hidden in the darkness of night or burning in the dazzling power of a younger sun than ours.
At recurring intervals the ocean grew cold. Ice piled up along its extremities, and so pulled vast amounts of water from the sea, so that the wandering shoreline of the continents sometimes jutted miles farther out than before. Then, for a hundred thousand years, the ceaseless ocean would tear at the exposed shelf of the continents, grinding rocks into sand and incubating new life.
Later, the fantastic accumulations of ice would melt, setting cold waters free to join the heaving ocean, and the coasts of the continents would lie submerged. Now the restless energy of the sea deposited upon the ocean bed layers of silt and skeletons and salt. For a million years the ocean would build soil, and then the ice would return; the waters would draw away; and the land would lie exposed . . .
I’ve elided the next two-and-a-half paragraphs in the interest of getting to the next part of the opening you should notice. What you might already have noticed is that we haven’t even got to the origin story of the Hawaiian islands yet. The time we’ve been parsing is geological. Michener was patient in these matters. Almost all of his books are doorstop-suitable. By comparison, Jonathan Franzen has published four novellas. But, finally, we get to our titular subject:
Then one day, at the bottom of the deep ocean, along a line running two thousand miles from northwest to southeast, a rupture appeared in the basalt rock that formed the ocean’s bed. Some great fracture of the earth’s basic structure had occurred, and from it began to ooze a white-hot, liquid rock . . .
The next fifteen paragraphs cover a few million years, from first underwater lava eruption to the pre-human rise of island life. A friend at the University of Texas told me that when James Michener made his large bequest to the university to build a world-class writing program, some people at the university turned up their noses at the money because he wasn’t a literary enough writer. But I’ve been reading around in his books lately, and they are full of useful, interesting, intelligent, and appropriable tropes that would enrich books of all varieties, point of entry being only the first worth studying and discussing.
The world of genre fiction is full of hidden treasures of this sort, from the intelligent (and appropriable) strategies for reckoning with ideas and managing volumes of information (how do they breathe on the methane planet Zooli-19, anyway?) in science-fiction, to the intelligent (and appropriable) first- and third- person observer-narrator procedural tropes of cop and law (which, whether they know it or not, are deeply rooted in point of view questions, since the central story is unknown to the teller of the tale at the beginning of the dramatic present, which makes them kin to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”), to the strategies for complicating or undoing mythic American themes that we see in the better Westerns (Oakley Hall’s Warlock or John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, to name two.)
As literature gets smart enough to operate in a spirit of aesthetic openness and generosity, and borrows more broadly from art, philosophy, video games, microbudgeted films from Sweden and Singapore, minimalist installations, conceptual thises and thats, may its practitioners also be smart enough to look in the seldom opened cabinets out in the garage, where the ugly stepchildren stashed the treasures hoping someone would find them. It’s good to find them.