Some writers have the knack of opening a novel in such a way I can’t forget. One example is Jane Austen at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. That sentence is firmly lodged in my brain, a reminder to read about Elizabeth Bennett and Mr (Fitzwilliam) Darcy once again, and luxuriate in the precise description of the fun, foibles and failures of relationships. Was there a time in the past when single men with money ‘were in want of a wife’? What a foolish question. Yes! Was there a time in the past when mothers were keeping an eye out for young men with money who might be a good match for their daughters? Another foolish question; of course, there was. Equally obviously, there are mothers and fathers today with the same concerns. There lies the power of that simple sentence: it is about something universal, even if the mores, the class prejudices, the relationships between the sexes, and so many other things have changed. The setting for Pride and Prejudice is almost ancient history, but the underlying story is timeless.
Or there’s that tantalising beginning to Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Tolstoy, like Austen, was a master of grabbing your attention, and also challenging you into being intrigued, attempting to anticipate ‘what next?’ Do you remember how the first paragraph of Anna Karenina continues?
“Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarrelled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid, and the coachman had given warning”.
What an opening! I don’t know about you, but I was caught, and I had to know what was going to happen.
Now, to be truthful, there are many novels I’ve enjoyed that don’t open quite so memorably. Some even start rather slowly, and quite a few authors don’t have the skills of a Jane Austen or a Leo Tolstoy. I read many detective novels, and especially when I open one by a favourite author, I don’t need to have my attention caught. I’m ready to be absorbed without any intriguing one-liners, although, yes, I have to admit quite a few do start rather well!! P D James first book in her series with Adam Dalgleish, Cover Her Face, opens with “Exactly three months before the killing at Martingale, Mrs Maxie gave a dinner party.” If not Austen, it was close, and it certainly got my interest!
Of course, as time goes by and you have read several books by the same author, the opening line becomes less important: you’re already sold on the writer, and so now you are looking for context. Dorothy Sayers knew her readers wanted to know what was going to happen with Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, so by the time Gaudy Night appeared, many readers like me would quickly read the opening lines, in which Harriet muses over her time as an undergraduate at Oxford. OK, I know this is going to be important in some way, but let’s get on with it: ‘where’s the murder?’ and, ‘where’s Wimsey?’
When I look back to some other books that stayed with me for a long time, I realise that the reason they caught my attention was because they came at the right time in my development. In Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth opens, “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”. Yup, just so! Little did I know that this was a precursor to exploring the heated adolescent imagination of a confused young man.
However, life becomes more interesting when we look at the less prominent books in the world of fiction. I can’t quite remember why I picked Susan Isaacs as my example, but she is one among many authors whose work I have read and enjoyed, starting way back in the 1970s. When it comes to one of these, Compromising Positions, her first novel, I think I might have bought that book because, well, if I am honest with himself, because it sounded sexy. Written back in 1978, the opening to Susan Isaac’s novel sets just the right tone: “As they would murmur at his funeral, Dr M Bruce Fleckstein was one of the finest periodontists on Long Island. And so good-looking. But as he turned his muscular, white-coated back for the last time, he had no notion he had shot his final wad of Novocaine, probed his ultimate gum. No, he simply turned for an instant, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps to hide the slight smirk that passed over his thin, firm lips. It was an unfortunate turn; his companion seized the moment to withdraw a thin sharp weapon and plunge it into the base of Fleckstein’s skull”. No doubt about it, this was going to be good: it promised both sex and murder!
Have you read Compromising Positions (what a brilliant title)? Our heroine is Judith Singer, she’s ‘intelligent, brash and witty’, but she is trapped by her lifestyle in Shorehaven (“minutes from Fitzgerald’s East Egg”); a stuffy husband (“Judith, don’t tell me you haven’t gained weight. I can see it in your waist.”) demanding children (“I hate her peanut butter. It’s the smooth kind.”) and a stultifying suburban home (“two weeks of accumulated laundry”).
When Dr. Bruce Fleckstein, is found murdered, Judith’s life takes on an unexpected direction, and she’s taken over by an unexpected sense of purpose. It turns out that besides being one of the Long Island’s leading periodontists and very active womanisers, Bruce Fleckstein had a hobby, he was also a photographer. We learn this through some of Judith’s acquaintances who disclose, “embarrassed and tearfully”, that their portraits were taken in what could best be described as ‘compromising positions.’ Having decided to poke her nose into the murder case, almost as a bit of fun, Judith turns out to be a good investigator, with the bonus she finds herself spending some of the time with an attractive homicide lieutenant who, ‘in attempting to arrest her for meddling with the case, finds himself instead arrested by her contagious warmth, wit and sexuality’. Long Island life: so captivating …
Susan Isaacs is a natural writer. Here is an extract from her background: “I was born in a thatched cottage in the Cotswolds. Oh, you want the truth. Fine. I was born in Brooklyn and educated at Queens College. After leaving school, I saw one of those ads: BE A COMPUTER PROGRAMMER! Take our aptitude test. Since I had nothing else in mind, I took the test – and flunked. The guy at the employment agency looked at my resume and mumbled, ‘You wrote for your college paper? Uh, we have an opening at Seventeen magazine.’ That’s how I became a writer.”
Interesting! She continues: “I liked my job, but I found doing advice to the lovelorn and articles like “How to Write a Letter to a Boy” somewhat short of fulfilling. So, first as a volunteer, then for actual money, I wrote political speeches in my spare time.” She married and had two children. “I’d left Seventeen to be home with my kids but continued to write speeches and the occasional magazine piece. During what free time I had, I read more mysteries than was healthy. Possibly I became deranged, but I thought, I can do this.” She could, and she did.
Compromising Positions sits in an interesting place in novels. At one extreme we have massive modern fantasy sagas, like George R R Martin whose series A Song of Fire and Ice, perhaps better known as Game of Thrones saga, is still going 25 years later, with volume six, The Winds of Winter, yet to appear, and no certainty this will bring the series to an end. Martin vies with Patrick Rothfuss for stretching things out. His Kingkiller Chronicle began with The Name of the Wind in 2007, and volume 2 in that series appeared in 2011, but the third (and final?) part, The Doors of Stone, is still in progress. Will it ever appear?
These are the contemporary equivalents of the Lord of the Rings, a three-volume work which Tolkien completed (or to be more accurate was published) in a mere fifteen months in 1954-5, albeit preceded by The Hobbit in 1937, which at that stage was seen as a stand-alone book). Do you recall how The Lord of the Rings begins? “When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton. Bilbo was very rich and very peculiar, and had been the wonder of the Shire for sixty years, ever since his remarkable disappearance and unexpected return”. The catch with this opening is that it follows an extensive Prologue, which ties the beginning of Lord of the Rings back to the adventures in The Hobbit, as well as providing a lot of background information on hobbits, pipe-weed, treasure and more!
Away from fantasy, Marcel Proust wrote Remembrance of Times Past (later renamed as In Search of Lost Time). That was in seven volumes, published between 1913 and 1927. Naturally, if the French could do it, the English could do better. Anthony Powell commenced A Dance to the Music of Time in 1951, and twelve books later , the series was finished in 1975. Those writers had serious stamina. There are many other series, of course, and the Harry Potter books by J K Rowling deserve mention. They open, “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense.”
However, long series are dwarfed by the Guin Saga, a Japanese fantasy series begun in 1979 by Kaoru Kurimoto (and others who kept writing after her death in 2009). That has run out to 171 volumes, and it’s claimed some of her fans have spent several decades reading nothing but Guin Saga books due to the frequency of the releases. Seriously? I admit I can get addicted to writers, but to that extent?
I think that’s enough of that! At the other extreme sit individual novels that are regarded as ‘literature’, finely written, often delving into the apparently prosaic and relatively normal lives of almost familiar people, and not part of a (sometimes drawn out) series. Jane Austen comes under that heading, I would suggest, and I am sure you could add some hundred or so of the same quality. Leaving aside mega-epics and great literature, in between there are now around twelve million fiction books that have appeared and disappeared a few years later, among them Compromising Positions.
Susan Isaac’s book is emblematic of what I would regard as the ‘better’ category within the great bulk of these novels. It is well written, fun, with elements of mystery, eroticism and sheer silliness. I think it could be called a ‘good read’.
My copy of Compromising Positions has joined the many single socks, pens, and other knick-knacks that seem to disappear over the years. As it happens, you might not be aware that British scientists have been investigating sock loss and have discovered we lose an average of 15 socks a year, well over 1,000 in a lifetime. Moreover, they have discovered a measure, The Sock Loss Index’, which accounts for loss as a factor of the number of people using the laundry room, the complexity of the types of wash, attitudes towards doing the laundry and how much caution is taken in the process. Don’t you love British scientists!
Has my copy of Compromising Positions disappeared as a result of similar factors? In this a case to be reported in a Book Loss Index, which would include determining where reading takes place (hmm, better not say too much about that), the types of books read in a house, how many people get their hands on the books, and how much care is shown towards them. That might help overall, but my copy of Compromising Positions was only read once, by me, and was then carefully placed on a bookcase. I know it survived several moves, and yet, one day it was no longer there. As soon as I started this blog, I realised I wanted to read it again. It isn’t available in the Canberra library system, but Isaacs is still writing sexy thrillers: her recent book, It Takes One to Know One, was described by the library as “Just a few years ago, Corie Geller was busting terrorists as an agent for the FBI. But at thirty-five, she traded in her badge for the stability of marriage and motherhood. … Life is, as they say, fine. But at her weekly lunches, Corie senses that something’s off. Pete Delaney, a seemingly bland package designer, always shows up early, sits in the same spot (often with a different phone in hand) and keeps one eye glued to his car. Corie intuitively feels that Pete is hiding something – and as someone who is accustomed to keeping her FBI past from her new neighbours, she should know. But does Pete really have a shady alternate life, or is Corie just desperate to add some spark to her humdrum suburban existence? She decides that the only way to find out is to dust off her FBI toolkit and take a deep dive into Pete Delaney’s affairs.”
Will I borrow It Takes One to Know One? After spending some time thinking about Susan Isaacs, perhaps I will. However, that misses the point. Susan is a good writer, her books are fun, and she is one among thousands, tens of thousands, who write entertaining fiction. In a world where anyone can publish a book, self-publishing has changed the industry into one where more than 2 million new titles appear every year, and perhaps 2-300,000 of these are ‘long form fiction’. How do we get to know about an author like Susan Isaacs? Forty-five years ago, her book was reviewed, promoted, and took a prominent place in bookshops. While there was an element of luck, even then, now it is far less likely you will notice many out of those thousands of books coming out every month. Some will be by established authors, and a few will be pushed by a publisher as the next ‘big thing’. Most are sold, in tiny numbers, to authors’ friends and family, and as the average book sale is 200 copies a year, that means most a selling far less than that. I guess writing is a compromising pastime?
Oh, I almost forgot, I did put in a reservation. I enjoyed It Takes One to Know One. It was a reminder that Susan Isaacs is a good, enjoyable writer; not more than that, but fun to read. If not quite The Remembrance of Times Past, it offered some light nostalgia for times past.