14 July 2007

last lines

American Book Review published its 100 Best First Lines from Novels in its January/February 2006 issue. I recently heard from co-publisher Charlie Harris that, in the wake of that issue's success, not to mention the good time had by all the participating editors, writers, and critics, next January ABR will publish a companion list: the 100 Best Last Lines from Novels.

Should you want to try your hand at the game yourself, here are the few rules Charlie lays out: "Only lines from novels or novellas count; short story collections arranged as a series that unfolds like a novel (e.g., Winesburg, Ohio or Lost in the Funhouse) count, but not typical short story collections (e.g., Nine Stories). A novel's final line will usually consist of a single sentence, but not always."

"It's interesting how much longer many of the nominated last lines are than the first lines were," Charlie emailed me as we began to think about this a little aloud. "Several . . . consist of more than just one or two sentences. One reason for this, I think, is that first lines are more or less context free, whereas final lines carry the contextual burden of the entire novel and, for maximum effectiveness, often need several sentences to do their work."

My obversation back: "That strikes me as exactly right. Too, last lines often carry what I think of as a sort of rhythmic burden, a sort of aural crescendo that depends on the lines just before them to establish the right rise and fall, or rise and rise and rise, or ironic brake or trap door."

Here are a few contenders from my list, in no particular order:

  • There was only the Viewer, slumped forever in his sour seat, the bald shells of his eyes boiling in pictures, a biblical flood of them, all saturated tones and deep focus, not one life-size, and the hands applauding, always applauding, palms abraded to an open fretwork of gristle and bone, the ruined teeth fixed in a yellowy smile that will not diminish, that will not fade, he's happy, he's being entertained. —Stephen Wright, Going Native, 1994.
  • Are there any questions? —Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale, 1986.
  • The others listened with interest, their naked genitals staring dully, sadly, listlessly at the yellow sand. —Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 1979, trans. Michael Henry Heim.
  • The aircraft rise from the runways of the airport, carrying the remnants of Vaughan's semen to the instrument panels and radiator grilles of a thousand crashing cars, the stances of a million passengers. —J. G. Ballard, Crash, 1973.
  • Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead. —Don DeLillo, White Noise, 1985.
  • Another failure. —Ronald Sukenick, 98.6, 1975.

Which one or five or seven, I'd be interested to know, might you add? What captivates you about them in particular? About the notion of last lines in general?