Author Topic: Great example of world-building in novel opening  (Read 144 times)

Offline Munley

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Great example of world-building in novel opening
« on: November 20, 2021, 09:41:07 AM »
 Not just setting but the first-person narrator's alienation from everything around her, something the author achieves by careful selection of details and masterful use of similes and metaphors. Great contrasts drawn between how people would expect the character to feel and how she does feel. Setting is New York City, summer, 1953:
 
THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath
Chapter One

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. I'm stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that's all there was to read about in the papers—goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, tindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat.

I kept hearing about the Rosenbergs over the radio and at the office till I couldn't get them out of my mind. It was like the first time I saw a cadaver. For weeks afterwards, the cadaver's head—or what there was left of it—floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast and behind the face of Buddy Willard, who was responsible for my seeing it in the first place, and pretty soon I felt as though I were carrying that cadaver's head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.

I knew something was wrong with me that summer, because all I could think about was the Rosenbergs and how stupid I'd been to buy all those uncomfortable, expensive clothes, hanging limp as fish in my closet, and how all the little successes I'd totted up so happily at college fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts along Madison Avenue.

I was supposed to be having the time of my life.

I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America who wanted nothing more than to be tripping about in those same size seven patent leather shoes I'd bought in Bloomingdale's one lunch hour with a black patent leather belt and black patent leather pocket-book to match. And when my picture came out in the magazine the twelve of us were working on—drinking martinis in a skimpy, imitation silver-lamé bodice stuck on to a big, fat cloud of white tulle, on some Starlight Roof, in the company of several anonymous young men with all-American bone structures hired or loaned for the occasion—everybody would think I must be having a real whirl.

Look what can happen in this country, they'd say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can't afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car.

Only I wasn't steering anything, not even myself. I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolley-bus. I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.

There were twelve of us at the hotel.

We had all won a fashion magazine contest, by writing essays and stories and poems and fashion blurbs, and as prizes they gave us jobs in New York for a month, expenses paid, and piles and piles of free bonuses, like ballet tickets and passes to fashion shows and hair stylings at a famous expensive salon and chances to meet successful people in the field of our desire and advice about what to do with our particular complexions.


Offline vivaviolet

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Re: Great example of world-building in novel opening
« Reply #1 on: November 23, 2021, 07:32:16 AM »
Thanks for this, Munley. I read it in college a million years ago but had forgotten how much I liked it.

Do you think if she were writing today she would be smacked down for too much "telling"?

Offline Munley

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Re: Great example of world-building in novel opening
« Reply #2 on: November 24, 2021, 07:28:30 PM »

Do you think if she were writing today she would be smacked down for too much "telling"?

Probably. But then again, judging from things I've seen online recently, I think agents are complaining more about openings with "exciting" action by characters we know so little about that we don't care who prevails by the end of the nail-biter the book opens with.

What I like about Plath's opening here is how the weather, the news, the supposedly enviable luck of getting this New York prize assignment affect the character, who compares herself to how the eye of a hurricane must feel. And how unable she is to free herself from obsessive thoughts and images.