Two Novels and One Competition

Recently, I took a break from reading the Best American Short Story series and devoured instead two novels: Paul Auster’s Invisible (2009) and Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply (2009). Although I chose both books at random from the library shelves, the two did harbor, at least in part, similar thematic concerns: identity and its formation. For me, though, each text suffered from a problem of believability: Auster’s reliance on his characters’ obsessive behavior and, in particular, the madness of old, wiry men, and Chaon on two-dimensional characterization (note: this is a novel about identity theft; however, authors should always be wary of the mimetic fallacy).

Often in fiction-writing circles we talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (the phrase is taken from his Biographia Literia [1817]) and how the writer earns it through style, tone, voice, and characterization, etc. I found the two novels in question to have fallen short in these regards. Although both are amiable enough reads, they each pale in comparison with the writers’ earlier works, especially Auster’s The New York Trilogy (1987) and Chaon’s Among the Missing (2001).

In light of this year’s Bulwer-Lytton’s purple prose competition, I put forth Auster and Chaon’s first lines…

Auster begins:

I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967.

Chaon begins:

We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says.

In comparison, Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, begins:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

To be honest, for the literature of the time, it’s not too terrible. In fact, the clause, “it was a dark and stormy night” has over the centuries demonstrated a wide cultural impact. Perhaps, a little unfairly, terminating now in this annual competition. The winner/s of this year’s competition can be found here.

Will we remember Auster and Chaon’s first lines in two hundred years?

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