Saturday, April 09, 2005

Great Beginnings

When you open the cover of a book, how do you know if you are going to finish it? What propels you past the first pages into the heart of a book?

For me, it’s the voice. If the author has created a credible character, one whose thoughts and dilemmas intrigue me, I continue. I don’t have to be immediately swept into a complex plot or ethical dilemma; I just have to feel that the author eventually will carry me into another world.

I have just started to read Nicole Krauss’ new novel, The History of Love. Krauss is the wife of the novelist-of-the-moment, Jonathan Safran Foer. His new book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has just been released and he has been interviewed, profiled, reviewed and debated in numerous publications. Both Krauss’ and Foer’s books play with the presentation of words, not necessarily presenting them in a linear fashion. Sometimes there are just a few words on a page. Other times, there are so many words that they crowd and overlap at the end, becoming unreadable. These similarities have led some on-line columnists to wonder if the couple wrote the same book.

Krauss’ book won’t be released until May 2, but it has already gotten favorable advance publicity. It was named Book Sense’s #1 Top Pick for May. (Krauss’s book was nominated by Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park and she will speak there June 9.)

From the moment I started on the first page, I was drawn in. Here is the beginning:

"When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT. I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive. The place isn’t big. I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by the way of the kitchen table. I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order or arrive at the door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears."

Now can’t you just imagine this guy? Caught in his own clutter, in an old apartment that probably smells musty? He’s a pack rat, someone who has lived in the same place for decades, followed the same routines for much too long and is probably caught in a rut.

I liked the voice so much that even when I got slightly tired of the man, say around page 20, I kept going. I ignored the critic in my head that asked if I could sustain interest for another 230 pages in a man with no seeming future. Since I trusted this narrator, I continued. And sure enough, the next chapter introduced a completely new character that suggested a plot twist. I was drawn into the book even further.

That’s the secret of a good book. A contract between author and reader that starts on page one and continues until “The End.”

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