08/10/20: The Art of the Second Sentence—Pachinko

I really love it when stories introduce tension between their opening sentences. In the traditional forms of storytelling, we tend to think and write sequentially: “This happens. Therefore, this happens.” The second sentence necessarily relies on the first for narrative context (the “therefore” being key in that relationship), but there are occasionally times when a second sentence starts to generate tension for that opener, putting it to the test and inviting the reader to watch it prove itself.

With respect to this, I’ve been thinking a lot about the opening sentences to Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. The first line of the novel comes across as a general statement, almost like a thesis:

History has failed us but no matter.

It invites plenty of questions from the reader. If you wanted to pick it apart, the questions you might ask would be:

  1. Who’s speaking?
  2. Which history is meant here? Are we speaking about history in broad terms or a particular history that the novel is supposed to unravel for us?
  3. Who’s ‘us’?
  4. How has history failed ‘us’?
  5. Why shouldn’t it matter that history has failed ‘us’?

These are all questions that make me want to go to the next sentence. On a basic level, the sentence poses an idea that is complex enough without having to seem too obscure or too demanding of me as a reader. At the same time, recognizing that the ideas in the sentence are generally applicable, I start trying to apply that statement to my own experience. I am already building a relationship with the book, simultaneously wondering about the ways that history has failed not just me, but a group that I consider myself to be a part of. I am being asked to wonder how I can possibly see that failure as something that shouldn’t matter, and I start making demands in light of what I think the book can see in my experience as a reader.

So I’m definitely hooked. It’s clear that I want the book to go on tackling this idea and justify it as an opening. I move on to the second sentence and it goes:

At the turn of the century, an aging fisherman and his wife decided to take in lodgers for extra money.

Now this sentence seems like it ought to be an abrupt jump away from the first. On the surface, the two sentences don’t seem related at all, taking a broad idea and then immediately zeroing in on something so particular. But a few things manage to stop that jump from jarring the reader, in particular the reliance on the form of the sentence, which calls to mind parables and folk tales. We’re introduced to two characters that aren’t identified except by their social status and trade, and a lot of things are implied by the action conveyed in this sentence—what kind of residence they occupy, how well the fisherman’s trade does to maintain their way of living, what other means of living are available for them to supplement their income. Finally, the phrase “at the turn of the century” anchors this statement to the history being invoked in the previous sentence, though whether that ‘century’ helps to limit the history being invoked, as I had asked above in my second question, remains to be seen.

By softening the impact of that jump and introducing a more tangible story, I actually start to get a better sense of where this novel will take me, regardless of the fact that a gap in logic continues to exist between the two sentences. As a reader, I start trying to supply the possible connections between those sentences, until the story either validates or proves me wrong: at the turn of the century, this couple will engage on a small venture to increase their fortunes… but history will fail them and that should be no matter.

So how does that prove itself? As Pachinko continues, the reader comes to understand that the individual fates of its characters are not tied to one another, so that some characters survive with a sense that they have escaped a bad end, while the others they care for bear the full burden of their misfortunes. From creating tension between the first sentences, the novel goes on to carry that tension over the initial idea and everything else that happens, all while closing the door on the storyline with which the novel begins.

When it comes to writing, I often make the mistake of obsessing over how much information and theme I can pack into the first sentence. It’s one of my biggest problems when confronting a new work, both as I’m drafting and especially as I’m editing. But the thing I’ve discovered lately with some of my favorite stories, whether they’re in the short form or in longer pieces such as the novel, is that I don’t have to pretend that the opening line is the end-all, be-all of my story. It’s more thoughtful to approach my relationship with the reader by constantly evaluating how the story is engaging them in every sentence. After all, many of my most meaningful reading experiences have come much further along past the first page. Heck, sometimes I don’t even know I’m reading until I reach the second sentence.