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Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Grace of the World

Near the end of North by Northwest, Alfred Hitchcock's careening suspense comedy starring Cary Grant as a divorced advertising executive mistaken for a CIA counterespionage agent, Cary Grant grips Eva Marie Saint (a genuine CIA plant) by the hand as she dangles off one of the faces of Mount Rushmore. The movie literally ends on a cliffhanger (Spoiler Alert: he not only rescues her, but vaults her straight into the arms of marital bliss in a train couchette).

Instead of ending with a cliffhanger, this novel opens with one. Unlike Cary and Eva Marie (who've been pushed to the brink of Mt. Rushmore by James Mason and his band of spy-thugs), Ruby and Sal are voluntary cliff-danglers, though on this cliff they've apparently met their match. As Ruby's "fingertips bleed" while she "strain[s] to keep hold of the narrow ledge," she looks up at her partner Cal, who adjusts the belaying rope and eggs her on, saying, "You've climbed taller men than this."

The mixture of comedy and suspense is something else this piece shares in common with Hitchcock's masterpiece. As they both dangle from Thomas Jefferson's nose, Eva Marie Saint asks Cary Grant why his previous wives divorced him, to which he replies, "They said I led too dull a life." A similar repartee binds these two more surely than that belaying line.

In North by Northwest, by the time we arrive at this blend of nail-biting and quip-tossing we know the protagonists well enough to invest equally in both suspense and humor, to laugh out loud as we bite our nails. But Sal and Ruby are strangers to me. Their dangling from a cliff means no more or less than would the peril of any two strangers. Ditto their sarcastic banter.

I'm reminded of another movie, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, in which the two outlaws sling affectionate barbs at each other ("You just keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."). In terms of their banter, thanks to the above mentioned movies (and also to shows like the X-files, where male/female teams share a similar sarcastic repartee), the dynamic feels too familiar. On the one hand I don't know these people, really; on the other I've seen and heard them a dozen times before. I know them as cardboard cutouts.

Affectionate sarcastic repartee is what this opening has to offer substantially, by way of character development. The rest is a competent and detailed evocation of rock climbing and the question: "Will Ruby fall?" I care, but much less than I might had this relationship not already obtained the summit of glibness.


  1. Thanks, Mr. Selgin--
    Yes! Good point. Why should anyone care about thse people yet? Hm.
    You've prodded me into thinking up an intro for these characters that'll still make for a grabby opening (before throwing them straight into the action,) so I'm excited to get back and type like a mad weasel. Thanks!

  2. Tou might use a version of the present opening as a prologue that dips the reader into the heart of the story and raises the question, "How did these two people get into this situation?"--which the rest of the novel goes on to answer. In that case, though, I would make it much pithier, with just enough description to make the predicament clear and no more.

    As for an alternative "grabby opening" I think your intention to "grab" the reader is what led you to your present choice. You can involve your readers without, necessarily, "grabbing" them, by by investing them as deeply and quickly as possible into the emotional (as opposed to the physical) predicaments of your characters.

  3. Interesting. I wouldn't feel honest implying the entire novel revolves around this climbing experience, as I wrote this first scene (which could be read as a prologue, it dawns on me) as a metaphor for the protagonist's larger journey through the novel--I wanted to illustrate how she responds to risk and challenge despite not really knowing what she's doing, and the rock climbing felt like a discrete, vivid setting to show those qualities in a short amount of time. the climbing does come up a little later on, then in a situation of real danger for her, so I hesitate to cut it out entirely.
    I agree that the grabbing is happening on a purely action-based level, so I wrote a more relaxed hiking scene leading up to this one which hopefully gives the reader a chance to connect with these two before the action grabbing commences. And I'm considering adding a greater sense of risk to the above scene, to actually give Ruby a moment of fear that reaches beyond her outward irritation.
    Thanks again for your insights--this is illuminating stuff.