Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Smoke & Mirrors

Some readers of this column will remember The Honeymooners, in particular Ed Norton, Ralph Kramden (Jackie Gleason)'s sidekick, the vest-and-tee-shirt wearing municipal sewer employee played to a fare-the-well by Art Carney. In one of his better schticks, Norton would confront some trivial undertaking with extravagant overtures, rolling up his sleeves, loosening his shoulders, licking his lips, approaching the task like a pool player trying for a 3-ball shot the hard way, until frustrated Ralph would bellow, "Will you CUT THAT OUT?"

Reading this ornately vacuous opening, I feel like Mr. Kramden. Or—to borrow another analogy from Hollywood—like Dorothy confronting what she thinks is the Wizard of Oz, when in fact she's seeing a sham operated by a humbug.

In The Wizard of Oz the illusion is achieved via smoke, flames, a thunderous basso profundo, and 1939 cinema's equivalent of a hologram. In this opening it's obtained through language as oozing and pungent ("gnawed at the gnarled roots of my soul" "a landscape that the sun shined on" "juice of the mundane") as an overripe camembert, language that doesn't convey content so much as it camouflages and conceals the lack thereof.

In the absence of a story, we get a narrator narrating—rolling up his sleeves, clearing his throat, wetting his lips and rubbing his hands together ("Will you CUT IT OUT!"). The prose—though metaphorically overdone—is amusing in its way. To be sure, a strong voice is achieved, but one wonders: in service of what?

Picture Orson Wells stepping—like The Third Man—out of the Viennese shadows, or Vincent Price peeking around a velvet curtain with one funereal eyebrow raised. Both men had magnificent stage presence, and so does this narrator. All he needs is a good story to tell.

Of that, alas, there is no trace here.

1 comment:

  1. A friend of mine calls this type of opening the vomit opening. No offense meant to the author as I have done this many times myself. It is when the author does not know what the story is about or what direction they want it to go in, only that they know they want to tell a story. Often in the pages following this is where the story truly begins and the vomit opening can be cut out entirely.