Two Sentences, Twenty-One Questions

Deep Reading, Great Openings, Sonnenuhr und Rondell

If you like your epidemic-themed fiction cool, complex, and sickening, Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet is a book you shouldn’t ignore. Its opening chapter is a terrific place to practice deep reading, too. The first two sentences will give you a taste of what’s to come:

“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us. In my personal bag, packed when my wife, Claire, had finally collapsed in sleep against the double-bolted bedroom door as it was getting light out, I stashed field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults.”

A blast of writerly efficiency, the first sentence introduces the necessary ingredients for a conflict to unfold: There’s three or more characters, two (or more) of them leaving without the third one knowing. The phrase may sound like the explanation of an action – we did this because etc. – but at the same time it holds back essential information: Who is “Esther”, and why do “we” leave in the first place? Why exactly wouldn’t Esther see them leaving if it’s “a school day” – and why is that even important?

Yes, it’s only a first sentence, and who’s to say all will not be explained very soon? But if you’re into deep reading, you will welcome this invitation to make wild guesses even before any other information has entered your head. There are possible plots to ponder: Is Esther to be protected from something? Are the others perhaps guilty or ashamed of something? Do they have a secret mission that Esther can’t know about? Or are they instead afraid of Esther, trying to flee from her?

All we know about the setting is that it’s a “schoolday”, which may of course be taken as a suggestion that Esther may be working at a school, perhaps as a teacher, which may imply that the “we” are two (or more) kids running away (though it would be weird if they called their teacher by first name). Or, more likely, Esther herself may be the student; and if she’s a student, she may well be the daughter of “we”.

Wild guesses are fun for a while, but if that were enough, people wouldn’t read novels but one-liners instead [insert amusing comment on the Age of Twitter here]. Most people, I guess, won’t even stop reading until at least the first paragraph is over. In a way, reading the first sentence on its own, and word by word, is a rather unusual way of reading. Should you even do it? You should. We call it Deep Reading, by the way.

Anyway, the second sentence provides us with more basic information about the “we”: There’s a second character with a first name, Claire, a wife, and there’s a first-person narrator – the implied husband. We still don’t know who Esther is, but with two characters connected by marriage and another connected to school, it doesn’t seem entirely unlikely that we’re dealing with a small family.

Apart from implying a relatable set of characters, the second sentence includes a few details that may take us directly into the heart of the conflict to unfold: For example, Claire doesn’t seem to be sleeping well. Rather, she “finally collapse[s]”, which suggests that she either can’t fall asleep normally, or that she tries not to sleep at all but merely gives in after a long battle. We also know that she does not fall asleep in bed like a normal person but “against the […] bedroom door,” which corroborates the idea that Claire in fact tries to stay awake.

And, of course, the term “double-bolted” suggests that someone has done some real work to lock someone in, or out. But who double-bolts the door, and who is the door double-bolted against? Is Claire inside, and did she lock herself in? If so, why? Or has someone locked her out, or in? Who’s threatening who?

More wild guesses: The bedroom door may be locked as a result of a married couple’s fight, or because it’s the last line of defence in a context of domestic violence; it may even be a motif straight from a horror story, where the monsters have already entered what the soon-to-be victims thought was a safe place, and are now threatening to intrude into its most private sanctuary. We have hardly met our family, and already something very unsavoury is going on in that house.

And there’s more questions to ask: Where is the narrator/husband when Claire falls asleep? By implication, he has been awake at that time. But has he watched over his, possibly sick, wife? Or was he on the outside, and did he wait for his wife to fall asleep so that he could force the bolted door open? Oh the wealth of possibilities!

And we haven’t even gotten to the most Ben-Marcus-like part of the second sentence, the suggestive list of things packed into the narrator’s “personal bag”: What is he going to do, with “field glasses, sound abatement fabrics, and enough rolled foam to conceal two adults”? Is the family going on a weird camping trip, are we going to witness a kidnapping of some kind, or is the narrator just batshit crazy?

If you read on, you will realize it’s all of these options and many more. Yes, The Flame Alphabet is one of those novels that won’t force you to decide on one reading, and if you like that amount of freedom and suggestiveness, it’s the perfect book for you, even though it will most probably also make you very, very ill.

By the way, if you think it’s silly to read just one or two sentences and make a big fuss about all the questions they presumably pose – because this will always be the case in the beginning of any novel and everything will be explained if you just read on – compare, for example, the opening of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 and see whether it will make you ask any questions at all. (Obviously, don’t actually do this. You already know it’s awful.)

(You can read the first two chapters of The Flame Alphabet in Bomb, by the way.)

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