Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The All Important Lead

I stopped at the library today to pick up John McNally's collection Troublemakers (2000, Univ. of Iowa Press). There's an interview with McNally at Virginia Quarterly Review, which gave me the idea (and another one here at Emerging Writers Network); I haven't read his fiction before. While I was there, I also grabbed On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction (2003, The Dial Press), by Karl Iagnemma (EWN interview here), and Quick (2004, Univ. of Michigan Press), by T.M. McNally. I'd never heard of Quick, but it was tucked in snuggly against Troublemakers and it seemed a shame to break them up.

Oddly, the first story in each collection is about student life. Here are the leads from each.

From Iagnemma's "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction":
When students here can't stand another minute, they get drunk and hurl themselves off the top floor of the Gehring building, the shortest building on campus. The windows were tamper-proofed in August, so the last student forced open the roof access door and screamed Fuck! and dove spread-eagled into the night sky.
From John McNally's "The Vomitorium":
Ralph ran a hand up and over his head, flattening his hair before some freak combination of wind and static electricity blew it straight up and into a real-life fright wig.
From T.M. McNally's "Muscle (And the Possibility of Grace)":
The need for strength is something we understand even then, during our first semester, when life is not yet a matter of avoiding death--the gray wash of despair; a fluke car accident on a long, coastal highway. For us the future is that in which we believe. We are the hopeful, however uninspired. We are Freshmen.
Everybody knows the lead is critical. It should be intrinsically interesting; ideally, it should begin to orient the reader in time, place and character; it should suggest dramatic potential, no matter how meager. The best leads also make a promise: if you keep reading, here is the kind of story you will get. If the promise is enticing, and if the story keeps the promise, that's a pretty good measure of success.

The Iagnemma story promises a story that is both dismal and comic, while providing a touch of setting: an urban university, probably, since the campus comprises numerous buildings, the shortest of which is tall enough to (apparently) encourage suicide attempts, a detail that suggests a greater than ordinary desperation. (Iagnemma works at MIT.) But note how the setting is sneaked in; the focus of these sentences is the image of the student diving "spread-eagled into the night sky." And listen to that odd note of mystery: If the students want to kill themselves, why do they jump from the shortest building? Finally, note how Iagnemma lets us know that we are dealing with a first-person narrator when he says "When students here...." This is a story most readers would continue with. This is a lead that does a lot of work, without ever feeling crowded.

The John McNally story also provides an intriguing image: Ralph and his fright wig. The story takes place on Halloween, fitting with the image, and the name Ralph promises a certain comic, if familiar, tone. This lead doesn't hold up against the Iagnemma lead, however; the threat implied by the image of the hair standing on end is undefined. We can't say that we have a feel for what the story is about. On the other hand, we have a character, this Ralph with his fright-wig hair, something that Iagnemma fails to provide (unless we count the diving student). This is enough to keep me reading.

Finally, we come to the T.M. McNally lead. What does this promise? A lecture? A long-winded narrator who likes to wax poetic about "the gray wash of despair"? We know that the story is about freshmen... and nothing else. No dramatic potential. No image to draw me into the story world. No characters. No setting. Just a narrator making a speech. If I keep reading, it will be from a sense of duty, and little else.

Aristotle said, "Well begun is half done." Never truer than in the short story.