Chapter One: An Invitation

I just started J. G. Farrell’s Siege of Krishnapur, which my dad left behind after a vacation; Rohan’s post got me to dig it out. I was struck immediately by how different the opening pages are from those of a genre novel, whether romance or mystery. If Farrell had been able to post on Dear Author‘s First Page Saturday, he’d have taken a pasting from readers: “start with action,” “introduce us to your hero or heroine right away,” “whose point of view is this?”

When I teach Studies in Fiction to first-year college students, one way I describe plot

image credit: WP Clipart

is as a circle. The opening of a story is mysterious; it presents us with questions–about plot, character, setting, meaning–which we expect it to have answered by the end. As we read “forward” through the story, we’re also circling “back” to that opening scene with new understanding. A mystery story like an episode of CSI or a Sherlock Holmes story is a perfect example. We start with a crime scene or a problem that must be solved; as we read ahead in the narrative (following the process of solving the mystery), we also flash back to the events that led up to the crime, each time with more understanding thanks to the clues the detectives have gathered along the way. A colleague in Creative Writing said he tells students to think of a story’s opening as an invitation they’re issuing to readers, and that’s a similar idea (just from the opposite side of the page). 

Once I’ve introduced this concept, we tend to spend a fair bit of class time discussing the openings of short stories and first chapters of novels: what questions are they raising? what problems and mysteries appear? what clues are we being given to pursue through the text? Sometimes I give students a paragraph or so to “read like detectives” in small groups, seeing just how much meaning they can find there.

I almost never talk about books on my blog the way I do in my professional life. Why not close read Farrell’s first chapter, so different from much of my recent pleasure reading? Plus this way, I get a blog post out of a book I’ve barely started. [Note: this isn’t meant as a lecture to you, my readers. This is one way to read, and I find it fun, but it isn’t the only way. And as I tell my students, I think we often pick up on these “clues” unconsciously as we read; they affect our experience and understanding of the book. What we do in class is pay conscious attention to those subtle things.]

The first sign of trouble at Krishnapur came with a mysterious distribution of chapatis. . . .

That is a pretty awesome, mysterious first sentence, isn’t it? What do those chapatis mean? What trouble is coming? I’m hooked!

Except that isn’t Farrell’s first sentence. It comes a couple of pages in. Here’s how the novel actually starts:

Anyone who has never before visited Krishnapur, and who approaches from the east, is likely to think he has reached the end of his journey a few miles sooner than he expected.  While still some distance from Krishnapur he begins to ascend a shallow ridge. From here he will see what appears to be a town in the heat-distorted distance.

This is, on the face of it, a much more boring start. There’s no point of view character, just a universalized “he” (in the middle of the next paragraph, this shifts briefly to “you,” suggesting the reader might be the traveler). And yet, this bland travelogue opens some interesting thematic possibilities: Krishnapur might sneak up on us, take us by surprise. It’s a place, perhaps, where things are not what they appear; or the (later explicitly European) traveler’s vision of it may be distorted.

The Siege of Krishnapur is historical fiction about the 1857 Indian Rebellion (or Mutiny); I know from what I’ve read about it that it’s part of a post-colonial trilogy and that it’s critical of colonialism. If I wanted to get fancy, then, I’d dredge up some dissertation reading and consider that this opening is a kind of parody of the colonialist discourse of travel writing (scroll down to discourse in that link for a good shorthand definition). Eighteenth and nineteenth-century travel narratives represent the landscape in Africa and the New World as empty and open to exploitation, their inhabitants as a universalized, unchanging, and inferior “he” in need of supervision. Here, the European traveler is the “he,” and “his” lack of understanding and clear vision is emphasized.

The villages on the plain appear to him not worth anything: they’re just mud, not brick (“bricks are undoubtedly an essential ingredient of civilization,” the narrator ironically notes), and threaten to merge back into the mud of the plain in the rainy season. The “natives” are barely above beasts (they’re shown pumping water along with oxen, for instance, in a daily routine that never changes); their villages are about to merge back into nature.

What appears to be the city turns out to be a cemetery; Krishnapur, once we finally get to it, is also sort of “dead.” It was once an important center, but the East India Company has moved on, leaving only a few functionaries, and many of the elaborate bungalows of the colonialists are shuttered and empty. Is this foreshadowing of the downfall of Empire? Are we reminded at the very beginning of where the story will end? (Not the novel, though, I think: the actual outcome of the Mutiny was the formalization of British imperial power in India).

Two pages in to the novel, we’ve finally caught up to those mysterious chapatis, and to an actual character, the Collector (Mr. Hastings), who finds them in his office. We’re still just getting started on the chapter! But we’re already 1000 words into this post. No time for the Collector’s worries about the chapatis; his (false) sense of security in the thick colonial brick walls of his church-shaped Residence, with its  library mostly empty of books; the fact that he’s carelessly failed to make a will; the painful meeting of the ladies’ poetry club. . . . All these first-chapter clues and delights still await. This sense of the richness of the text and its meanings is why I love reading like this. J. G. Farrell, I accept your invitation. I can’t wait to find out more.

I’m going to try a post like this on the next romance novel I read. I expect it, too, will repay such attention, though it will likely offer a different kind of invitation to its readers.

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5 Responses to Chapter One: An Invitation

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    Oh, this is great! More, please–about Siege, but also of this kind of reading. And I too found the chapatis deliciously enticing and mysterious. Do you know if they have any basis in fact? I know too little about the specifics of the Mutiny.

    • lizmc2 says:

      Google suggests the chapatis are fact-based. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

      And thanks, there will be more of this kind of reading, I think. I had a lot of fun with this post and it reminded me of what I love about my job (hint: not policy revision).

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        I think it’s a sign of my advanced age that I didn’t just Google that myself: I still sometimes forget that the answer to (almost) every question is out there for the taking! There’s even a blog named for this, as I remembered as soon as I turned it up, as I have read a few posts from it over the years:

  2. Back when I struggled to find a suitable opening for my novel (I believe I’d gone through more than twenty before I finally found one that fit the story and its invitation, so to speak), Alicia Rasley’s post about scene endings based on (sub)genre was like the switching on of a lightbulb. My book began as a straightforward historical romance, but my agent nudged me in the direction of women’s historical fiction, which naturally has a different “feel” than romance. Even though I was able to push the plot and characters somewhat beyond the genre, I kept trying to fit traditional romance scene markers onto this book because I was so accustomed to that language and the type of outcome it promised. This post enriches Rasley’s exercise, and I look forward to your application to a romance novel.

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