Dissecting the Beginning of the Greatest Novel of All Time

Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.

That is a strong first sentence, I like how comfortable it starts out, how casual it seems. Then, bam! Where is the story even going to go after that sentence?


"We need--" she'd said, and he never heard her say just what it was they needed, because something heavy seemed to slam against his chest, crushing the breath out of him. The phone fell from his hand and cracked the glass paperweight on his desk.

Thoughts mixed with actions. Partial sentences that leave us wanting to know more. It's so vivid in so few words. Smooth flowing metaphor combined with just enough detail.

Just the week before, she'd said something similar, had said, "Do you know what we need, Jeff?" and there'd been a pause-- not infinite, not final, like this mortal pause, but a palpable interim nonetheless. He'd been sitting at the kitchen table, in what Linda liked to call the "breakfast nook," although it wasn't really a separate space at all, just a little formica table with two chairs placed awkwardly between the left side of the refrigerator and the front of the clothes drier. Linda had been chopping onions at the counter when she said it, and maybe the tears at the corner of her eyes were what had set him thinking, had lent her question more import than she'd intended.

It's amazing how he moves around the timeframe so easily and so seamlessly. He also smoothly inserts little side thoughts, which is how I think, and I connect with that. Using "maybe" when referring to his own thoughts, that also hits as very real. Thoughts are a hard thing to be certain of, they just seem to spring into being. Look again at how chopped-up the first sentence of this paragraph is. It isn't just a transition in the timeline, although it does that well, it really adds to the feel of the story. I love "mortal pause."

"Do you know what we need, Jeff?"

Grimwood uses iteration quite a bit. He doesn't just use it flatly though. He uses partials of this sentence often in this opening.

And he was supposed to say, "What's that, hon?" was supposed to say it distractedly and without interest as he read Hugh Sidey's column about the presidency in Time. But Jeff wasn't distracted; he didn't give a damn about Sidey's ramblings. He was in fact more focused and aware than he had been in a long, long time. So he didn't say anything at all for several moments; he just stared at the false tears in Linda's eyes and thought about the things they needed, he and she.

In the first sentence of this paragraph Grimwood inserts imaginary dialogue into the middle and then doesn't just go on with the sentence, he doesn't just move on, he goes over it again adding emphasis to the thought. This is the first spot that Grimwood adds some emotional assertiveness to our protagonist, some umph, some intensity.

They needed to get away, for starters, needed to get on a plane going someplace warm and lush--Jamaica, perhaps, or Barbados. They hadn't had a real vacation since that long-planned but somehow disappointing tour of Europe five years ago. Jeff didn't count their annual Florida trips to see his parents in Orlando and Linda's family in Boca Raton; those were visits to an ever-receding past, nothing more. No, what they needed was a week, a month, on some decadently foreign island: making love on endless empty beaches, and at night the sound of reggae music in the air like the smell of hot red flowers.

Without "for starters" in that first sentence he would have a hard time moving forward with what they needed, but with the "for starters" he could go on about what they needed forever. He paints a nice picture here, but mostly he gives us a lot of information about the character in an engaging way.

A decent house would be nice, too, maybe one of those stately old homes on Upper Mountain Road in Montclair that they'd driven past so many wistful Sundays. Or a place in White Plains, a twelve-room Tudor on Ridgeway Avenue near the golf courses. Not that he'd want to take up golf; it just seemed that all those lazy expanses of green, with names like Maple Moor and Westchester Hills, would make for more pleasant surroundings than did the on ramps to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the glide path into LaGuardia.

More information about the character. What information? about his daydreams? Yes; about his motivations, desires, and intentions; and that there have been too many obstacles for him to overcome to achieve them. We are seeing both his desire and his reality, and the juxtaposition highlights the difference.

They also needed a child, though Linda probably felt that lack more urgently than he. Jeff always pictured their never-born child as being eight years old, having skipped all the demands of infancy and not yet having reached the torments of puberty. A good kid, not overly cute or precocious. Boy, girl, it didn't matter; just a child, her child and his, who'd ask funny questions and sit too close to the TV set and show the spark of his or her own developing individuality.

The first five words of this paragraph up the intensity, and I am thinking, "wow, why didn't he say that earlier?" It is beautiful placement to really start to pull us into his emotional universe. Then his desires sound so reasonable. Why shouldn't this guy get such a reasonable desire?

There'd be no child, though; they'd known that was impossible for years, since Linda had gone through the ectopic pregnancy in 1975. And there wouldn't be any house in Montclair or White Plains, either; Jeff's position as news director of New York's WFYI all-news radio sounded more prestigious, more lucrative, than it actually was. Maybe he'd still make the jump to television; but at forty-three, that was growing increasingly unlikely.

Those first five words again. Woo, depressing. In this first sentence you can feel that there has been a large amount of suffering for both of them, together and separately, for long periods of time. Then it just gets more depressing, a slight uptick about the possible future, and then back down. That is the rythm of tragedy.

We need, we need . . . to talk, he thought. To look each other straight in the eye and just say: It didn't work. None of it, not the romance or the passion or the glorious plans. It all went flat, and there's nobody to blame. That's simply the way it happened.

I can feel that this is right, this is what needs to happen. I agree with him.

But of course they'd never do that. That was the main part of the failure, the fact that they seldom spoke of deeper needs, never broached the tearing sense of incompletion that stood always between them.

"Tearing sense of incompletion," that is a beautifully turned phrase. Not only that, but I really do feel the tearing sense of incompletion that is between them at this point. Hopes and dreams exchanged for depressing dread. From lives full of hope to lives full of regret, regrets so strong that to speak of them would be to obliterate themselves.

Linda wiped a meaningless, onion-induced tear away with the back of her hand. "Did you hear me, Jeff?"

Grimwood takes us back to reality, like waking up from a daze.

"Yes. I heard you."

The transition from thinking about past and future back to acting in the present is so smooth, and yet this present is a memory itself, all of the transitions are so smooth it isn't confusing at all when you read it in one go.

"What we need," she said, looking in his direction but not quite at him, "is a new shower curtain."

So much suspense, now the reality is very real, very mundane; his life.

In all likelihood, that was the level of need she'd been about to express over the phone before he began to die. "--a dozen eggs," he sentence probably would have ended, or "--a box of coffee filters."

We are jumping in the timeline again. Effortless for the reader, very difficult for the writer to do well.

But why was he thinking all this? he wondered. He was dying, for Christ's sake; shouldn't his final thoughts be of something deeper, more philosophical? Or maybe a fast-speed replay of the highlights of his life, forty-three years on Betascan. That was what people went through when they drowned, wasn't it?

Questioning reality and his experience. Aren't we all curious about what death is like, and yet we all feel like we kind of know what it should be like. We also think certain thoughts when we think we should be thinking other thoughts, at least I do. I like the question mark in the middle of the first sentence, I think it works well.

This felt like drowning, he thought as the expanded seconds passed: the awful pressure, the hopeless struggle for breath, the sticky wetness that soaked his body as salt sweat streamed down his forehead and stung his eyes.

Slowly building tension. I am feeling his struggle.

Drowning. Dying. No, shit, no, that was an unreal word, applicable to flowers or pets or other people. Old people, sick people. Unlucky people.

Panic and denial. It seems appropriate in the situation. This paragraph is very sliced and diced by punctuation, it adds a nice panicky feel to it.

His face dropped to the desk, right cheek pressing flat against the file folder he'd been about to study when Linda called. The crack in the paperweight was cavernous before his one open eye: a split in the world itself, a jagged mirror of the ripping agony inside him. Through the broken glass he could see the glowing red numerals on the digital clock atop his bookshelf:

The detail that he planted in the second paragraph comes back around and turns into an awe-inspiring metaphor. "...a split in the world itself, a jagged mirror of the ripping agony inside him." this is an impressive mix of the visceral with the ascendant. Something as large as the world compared to the fairly insignificant life (for everyone else) of our protagonist. Something as innocuous as a paperweight first becomes the world, then his own death.

1:06 PM OCT 18 88

I think 1988 at the end would work better, but this book is from '86, so no one was worried about using all four digits for the year yet.

And then there was nothing more to avoid thinking about, because the process of thought had ceased.

Grimwood ends this opening piece in a casual tone about the subject of death, which is the same way he opened it. He also ends with a single sentence, again mirroring the way he opened.

Books, literature, film, features, plays, and stories are all a matter of taste. They are all a very individual experience, and yet, stories connect us. They connect us to each other through the experience of being human. Grimwood is exploring very universal themes in a very specific context. Some people will like this book as much as me, others, maybe not so much, but the themes are powerful never-the-less. Lost hopes and dreams, too many regrets and fears, mundane despair and dread, questioning life... and death.

I have read several novels that I would consider life-changing, and I have attempted to re-read several of them, but I have always found it impossible, except for this story. I have listened to this audio book probably around two dozen times, each time I have a powerful experience. There is a lot I can learn from this book, even just this piece. I will keep working on understanding the great works. You are welcome to join me at JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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