Welcome to SCRAWL SPACE, Greg’s blog. Here he waxes eloquent on all things relating to writing and the writing life. In other words, it’s where he loves to waste his time and that of his readers. He’s very happy you’ve stopped by. You, too, Dad.
Not too long ago, I wrote a piece about my all-time favorite authors of dark comedic fiction. In twelve days, I’ll meet the man who’s number one on that list.
For those unfamiliar with Palahniuk, he wrote Fight Club (yes, it was an amazing novel before it was an amazing movie) as well as Survivor, Choke, Invisible Monsters and numerous other brilliant best-selling books. He’s not only my favorite author of dark humor; he’s my favorite author period. (Well, living author, anyway – it’s hard to compete with dead Russians.)
So, when I read that Chuck was going to be leading a ten-session writing workshop (something authors of his magnitude almost NEVER do), and that only a handful of applicants would be selected to participate, I did what any serious writer and Palahniuk fan would do: I screeched like a schoolgirl. Then I knocked over my wife and daughter en route to my writing nook to get started on my application.
A week later I received an email from the writing institute that’s sponsoring the workshop, letting me know I’d been accepted. The message even included a personal note of praise from Chuck himself about the writing sample I submitted. After reading the email and note six times, I did what any serious writer and Palahniuk fan would do: I soiled myself.
On Monday, February 27, I’ll be flying out to Portland (from my home in Austin) to join fifteen other extremely fortunate writers for the initial session of the Writing Wrong Workshop, where the master of modern trangressive fiction will encourage us to challenge conventional writing rules and, I think, fight each other in underground brawls.
As honored and as thrilled as I am, I do have some concerns. My biggest concern – aside from delayed or cancelled flights causing me to miss any of the workshop sessions – is meeting Chuck… and doing something that causes him to want to fight me in an underground brawl. Few things can ruin a writer’s confidence or career more than getting punched in the face by an author they idolize. Now, some of you may be thinking that blogging about how giddy I am about the workshop would be reason enough for Chuck to want to punch me, but that’s ludicrous. Chuck is never going to read my blog.
To help ensure I don’t do anything to annoy or irk my idol during the workshop, I’ve come up with eight Fight Club-style rules for me to follow:
1) The first rule of Write Club is you do not talk about Write Club. (Except when blogging, or chatting with family and friends, or standing next to a total stranger in the grocery store checkout line, or sitting next to one on a flight to Write Club.)
2) The second rule of Write Club is you do not try to make clever references or allusions to Fight Club (or any other of Chuck’s books) during Write Club. (I did, however, reference the workshop on Twitter two days ago and included in the tweet, “I am Jack’s unbridled anticipation.” Risky, I know, but Chuck himself re-tweeted it, so I think I’m good.)
3) The third rule of Write Club is you do not bring all your copies of Chuck’s books to Write Club for him to sign. (At least not until you see another Write Club participant try it without getting punched.)
4) The fourth rule of Write Club is you do not wear to Write Club any apparel featuring anything related to Chuck or his books. (Nobody likes a teacher’s pet, least of all the teacher – especially when the teacher’s Chuck. So, I’ve agreed to hand over both my Fight Club T-shirt (see image) and my Survivor hoodie to my wife before I head to the airport each week. It’s the only way.)
5) The fifth rule of Write Club is you must correctly pronounce Chuck’s surname every time you say it. (It’s PAULA-nick. NOT pa-LA-nick, which is how 99.9% of people outside of Chuck’s immediate family pronounce it – including me up until I heard him interviewed on NPR a little over a year ago. It was shocking; almost like finding out you’re adopted.)
6) The sixth rule of Write Club is, when Chuck enters the room for the first time, you don’t soil yourself. (I will do my absolute best to respect this rule, but will be wearing an adult diaper to the first session just in case.)
7) The seventh rule of Write Club is, when Chuck rips your writing to shreds, you do not openly sob. (I will do my absolute best to respect this rule, but will bring an extra adult diaper for my tears just in case.)
8) The eighth and final rule of Write Club is do not forget you belong in Write Club. You earned this. You've GOT this. (Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go change my underwear. Again.)
I never judge a book by its cover. I judge it by its first line, or lines. If I’m not blown away or at least utterly intrigued by the end of the opening paragraph, I’m gone.
Call it impatience. Call it ADD. I’m sorry, but life’s too short and my reading list too long for me to spend more than half a minute on a tale that doesn’t grab me by the goodies from the get-go.
I know, I know, there’s such a thing as foreplay. Just not in fiction. Not for me. Not when it comes to Chapter One, anyway.
I get that I’m probably missing out on some worthwhile reads due to my demands for immediate literary gratification. That’s fine by me. I have to draw the line somewhere to ensure I have time to write, time for friends and family, and time to binge-watch Breaking Bad over and over.
So what does it take for me to move past page one of a book? I’ll show you. Following are what I consider to be 25 of the best opening lines in literature, in no particular order:
1) “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” –1984 by George Orwell
2) “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” –The Stranger by Albert Camus
3) “It was a pleasure to burn.” –Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
4) “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” –Murphy by Samuel Beckett
5) “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” –One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez,
6) “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” –Neuromancer by William Gibson
7) “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” –The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks
8) “Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.” –The Luck of the Bodkins by PG Wodehouse
9) “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” –The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
10) “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler's pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.” –Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
11) “I am living at the Villa Gorghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.” –Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
12) “A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.” –Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
13) “I was looking for a quiet place to die. Someone recommended Brooklyn…” –The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
14) “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
15) “I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.” –The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
16) “I am a sick man… I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.” –Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
17) “He – for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it – was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” –Orlando by Virginia Woolf
18) “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” –Beloved by Toni Morrison
19) “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” –Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
20) “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
21) “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” –Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
22) “Like most people, I didn’t meet and talk to Rant Casey until after he was dead.” –Rant by Chuck Palahniuk
23) “On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.” –The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
24) “None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore.” –True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne
25) “Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” –An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
26 – Bonus!) “Everyone in the subway car gasped when the man with the shaved head slid off his seat and crumpled to the floor. Everyone except Gage.” –Sick to Death by… ME! (Okay, so maybe it isn’t one of the best opening lines in literature, but it’s most definitely one of the best opening lines in literature I’VE written. The book just launched earlier this month – I hope you’ll have a look!)
What are some of YOUR favorite opening lines in literature? Please share them in the comments section below.
It’s no secret I love dark humor. I read it. I watch it. I write it. I live it. Well, we ALL live it. I mean, what’s darker and funnier than being the only animals totally conscious of the fact they are definitely going to die one day? Hilarious.
And since we’re all definitely going to die one day, I won’t waste any more of your time on a long intro. Following are my favorite lines from my favorite authors who take their comedy black with no cream or sugar:
“At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.” (Fight Club)
“On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” (Fight Club)
“Today is the sort of day where the sun only comes up to humiliate you.” (Fight Club)
“I don't want to die without any scars.” (Fight Club)
“It's only in drugs or death we'll see anything new, and death is just too controlling.” (Survivor)
“People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.” (Survivor)
“All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.” (Invisible Monsters)
“In a world where billions believe their deity conceived a mortal child with a virgin human, it's stunning how little imagination most people display.” (Rant)
“What if reality is nothing but some disease?” (Rant)
“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” (Slaughterhouse-Five)
“How nice -- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.” (Slaughterhouse-Five)
“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” (Breakfast of Champions)
“Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead.”
(Breakfast of Champions)
"Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything." (Cat's Cradle)
"All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental." (Timequake)
Bret Easton Ellis
“I'm into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends.” (American Psycho)
“Disintegration – I'm taking it in stride.” (American Psycho)
“There’s no use in denying it: this has been a bad week. I’ve started drinking my own urine.” (American Psycho)
“I don't want to care. If I care about things, it'll just be worse, it'll just be another thing to worry about.” (Less Than Zero)
“And as the elevator descends, passing the second floor, and the first floor, going even farther down, I realize that the money doesn't matter. That all that does is that I want to see the worst.” (Less Than Zero)
“I only had sex with her because I'm in love with you.” (The Rules of Attraction)
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” (Lolita)
“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” (Lolita)
“Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece” (Lolita)
“All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust, and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.” (Pale Fire)
“I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.” (Pale Fire)
“Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.” (Pnin)
“Be glad you're even alive. Be furious you're going to die.” (Catch-22)
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” (Catch-22)
“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.” (Catch-22)
“The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.” (Catch-22)
“I frequently feel I'm being taken advantage of merely because I'm asked to do the work I'm paid to do.” (Something Happened)
“I know at last what I want to be when I grow up. When I grow up I want to be a little boy.” (Something Happened)
And sorry folks, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity for a little self-promotion…
"Suicide should come with a warning label: 'Do not try this alone.'" (The Exit Man)
“One week I’m helping to end a life, the next I’m stepping in to save one. Seemingly dichotomous acts, but actually one in the same.” (The Exit Man)
“She had become an integral part of my life – just not the part with all the death.” (The Exit Man)
“It’s best to discuss mass murder behind closed doors, and Jenna lived the closest.” (Sick to Death – available soon!)
“Learning he might not be dying really threw a wrench into Gage’s plans. He didn’t see how he could go on killing if there was a chance he’d go on living.” (Sick to Death)
“He never praised me whenever I’d hit a home run in little league, but I kill a few people and all of the sudden I’m his idol.” (Sick to Death)
Feel free to join in on the fun and post one or two of YOUR favorite lines from a book of dark and/or comedic fiction. Or hell, ANY kind of book. (Super-extra bonus points if it’s from one of MY books.)
My love of dark comedy started at a very young age – likely ignited by watching my two older brothers punch one another in the face. Funny stuff. As I grew up, I’d often find myself laughing in places and at things that typically disturb more well-adjusted people. Hospitals. Funerals. Public education.
After I learned to read… correction… after I learned to LIKE to read – which didn’t happen until after college – it’s hardly surprising that I found myself drawn to books brimming with black humor. I’d even laugh while reading books that were dark but not at all intended to be funny. For instance, I found Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground to be a riot. And Kafka’s The Trial made me almost pee my pants.
There’s a fine line between humor and horror, laughing and lamenting, funny and frightening.
Following are my 10 favorite dark comic novels, along with my two favorite lines from each:
1) Fight Club (by Chuck Palahniuk) A stunningly original tale of a young corporate insomniac whose life changes completely after befriending an enigmatic soap salesman who hosts underground fighting matches in bar basements. You’ve seen the movie – it’s good. Read the book (if you haven’t already) – it’s brilliant. Just don’t talk about it – that’s the first rule… and the second rule. I just broke both.
Favorite lines “At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.”
“On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”
2) Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov) As haunting and perverse as it is hilarious and tender, this was the first book that had me fully rooting for a character who, if I ever met in person, I would punch in the face before reporting him to the authorities.
Favorite lines “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”
3) White Noise (by Don DeLillo) White Noise is (mostly) about an “airborne toxic event” that forces a college professor and his family – along with the rest of his idyllic town – to evacuate and cope with the chaotic aftermath. Myself having experienced first hand the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1978 (my elementary school class was on a field trip in Harrisburg, Pa., that day), this grim yet funny book really hit home. Yes, I’m allowed to write run-on sentences about books that moved me.
Favorite lines “I've got death inside me. It's just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.”
“California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.”
4) Survivor (by Chuck Palahniuk) A book featuring a death cult, an imminent plane crash, and lots of steroids and collagen – how could it NOT be funny? It’s a brazen piss-take of fame, organized religion and just modern life in general. The chapters and pages are numbered backwards – beginning with Chapter 47 on page 289 and ending with page 1 of Chapter 1. Mr. Palahniuk is a madman. I want his autograph.
Favorite lines “It's only in drugs or death we'll see anything new, and death is just too controlling.”
“People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.”
5) Slaughterhouse-Five (by Kurt Vonnegut) Any one of Vonnegut’s novels are deserving of a spot here, but I went with Slaughterhouse-Five because Wikipedia told me it is his most influential and popular work, and I don’t question Wikipedia. The book is a combination World War II satire and absurdist sci-fi time-travel tale that leaves you laughing and crying simultaneously, assuming you are alive when reading it. It’s also Vonnegut’s most personal book: It centers on an actual historic event that he himself lived through as a soldier – the infamous firebombing of Dresden.
Favorite lines “And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”
“How nice -- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”
6) American Psycho (by Bret Easton Ellis) Readers should be arrested and locked away for enjoying this sick, twisted and unflinchingly violent novel. But that will never happen, as there simply isn’t enough space in the world’s prisons to accommodate everyone. Whatever you do, DON’T read it. But do.
Favorite lines “I'm into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends.”
“Disintegration – I'm taking it in stride.”
7) Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller) Hands down the funniest novel about war ever written – and one of the funniest novels period. At the heart of the book is an American bombardier named John Yossarian, who, along with his fellow airmen, are forced to continue flying an ever-increasing number of perilous missions assigned by their callous colonel. That such comedy can come from such terror and chaos is fascinating. And confusing. I need to go lie down now.
Favorite lines “Be glad you're even alive. Be furious you're going to die.”
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.”
8) Rant (by Chuck Palahniuk) No, Chuck Palahniuk’s publicist is not paying me anything. I realize that featuring in my list three books from a single author is a bit much, but Mr. Palahniuk is a modern master of dark comic fiction, and if you disagree, I’ll fight you in a bar basement. Rant tells the story of Rant Casey – a small-town high school rebel with a thing for getting bitten by rabid and poisonous creatures, destroying things during urban demolition derbies, and killing lots and lots of people. I believe it’s ranked dead last on the list of “Quaintest Books Ever Written.” You’ll laugh and have nightmares – often simultaneously.
Favorite lines “In a world where billions believe their deity conceived a mortal child with a virgin human, it's stunning how little imagination most people display.”
“What if reality is nothing but some disease?”
9) Hope: A Tragedy (by Shalom Auslander) You’ve probably never heard of this novel (or this author), but any book that features Anne Frank as one of its main characters AND makes you laugh out loud on every page is certainly deserving of a spot on this list. (By the way, in this tale, Ms. Frank survived the Holocaust and is living in the attic of a modern-day family’s farmhouse in rural New York.) Hope constantly shifts gears between uproarious and touching, irreverent and heroic. I actually applauded when I finished reading the last page. And then I apologized to my copy of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Favorite lines “It’s a lot easier to stay alive in this world if everyone thinks you’re dead.”
“Hiding from genocide inside a Jew's attic… is like hiding from a lion inside a gazelle.”
10)The Exit Man (by Greg Levin) I know, I’m just as surprised as you are to find my own upcoming book listed among some of the greatest dark comic novels ever written. My parents must be very proud. In case you didn’t already know it, The Exit Man tells the story of a party supply storeowner who leads a secret double life as a euthanasia specialist. Think Dexter meets Dr. Kevorkian.
Favorite lines “Suicide should come with a warning label: ‘Don’t try this alone.’”
“After a year or so of helping people die, I was really starting to reach my full potential as a person.”
[UPDATE: Those of you who are itching to buy The Exit Man (Mom, Dad), I’m afraid you’ll have to wait just a little longer than expected. While the book is 100% written and edited, there have been some slight delays in the production process. So, instead of a late spring release, we’re looking at an early summer one. Sorry to keep you hanging, but I promise it will be worth the wait!]