The opening lines of Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis convey numerous bits of seemingly casual information, all of which are meticulously designed to intrigue us. We understand that the wealthy young male protagonist is from Los Angeles and is being picked up from the airport by Blair, a friend of his, who enjoys recreational drugs. We don't know why the narrator is coming back to town, but it may have something to do with Muriel, a girl known to both he and Blair, and who may be anorexic. The passage seems to lead us to this one question: who is Muriel and what is she to the protagonist and to Blair? But even before we get to this question, there are minor queries about the narrator's trip that intrigue us. What did happen with the drunk couple sitting across from him on the plane? Why does he have mud on his jeans? Where did his travels begin? How did he stain his shirt and tear the neck of his vest? Does it have anything to do with the drunk couple? And to top it all off, Blair utters “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” under her breath to the narrator. And inside his head, and ours, it becomes a riddle. What is it? An existential metaphor? An annoying enigma that defies meaning? A coded message from a friend? The narrator's curiosity mirrors ours, and this helps us to identify with him. We want to know more. We want to read on. We are hooked.
"People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. This is the first thing I hear when I come back to the city. Blair picks me up from LAX and mutters this under her breath as her car drives up on the ramp. She says, “People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles.” Though that sentence shouldn’t bother me, it stays in my mind for an uncomfortably long time. Nothing else seems to matter. Not the fact that I’m eighteen and it’s December and the ride on the plane had been rough and the couple from Santa Barbara, who were sitting across from me in first class, had gotten pretty drunk. Not the mud that spattered the legs of my jeans, which felt kind of cold and loose, earlier that day at an airport in New Hampshire. Not the stain on the arm of the wrinkled, damp shirt I wear, a shirt which had looked fresh and clean this morning. Not the tear on the neck of my grey argyle vest, which seems vaguely more eastern than before, especially next to Blair’s clean tight jeans and her pale-blue T-shirt. All of this seems irrelevant next to that one sentence. It seems easier to hear that people are afraid to merge rather than “I’m pretty sure Muriel is anorexic” or the singer on the radio crying out about magnetic waves. Nothing else seems to matter to me but those ten words. Not the warm winds, which seem to propel the car down the empty asphalt freeway, or the faded smell of marijuana which still faintly permeates Blair’s car."
150 years ago, on the 19 November 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln gave a speech to commemorate the battle of Gettysburg, where Union armies had recently defeated Confederacy forces. At a little over two minutes, it is one of the shortest and yet one of the most influential speeches ever made. To this day, it is quoted as a masterpiece of rhetoric, and an example of what an inspiring speech should sound like.
Lincoln used the Gettysburg Address to remind the audience of the sacrifice already made "that these dead shall not have died in vain", of the idea of modern America for which they are fighting "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom", and of the urgency of completing this "unfinished work". It is a call to arms to ensure that the "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". The speech is concise, memorable, and above all persuasive. And its short sharp words carved out a nation's destiny.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Source: Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler. The text above is from the so-called "Bliss Copy," one of several versions which Lincoln wrote, and believed to be the final version.
Not Waving but Drowning is a poem by the British poet Stevie Smith (Florence Margaret Smith) 1902-1971. Smith is a master storyteller who paints a vivid picture using multiple voices but few words to convey a tragicomic truth: when we look at other people's lives, we think we understand them. We think we know why they behave the way they do. But maybe we don't. Maybe the current has taken them too far out and they can't swim back to shore. And maybe they are not waving but drowning...
Not Waving but Drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
The following are the opening lines from Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, who employs the second person narrative to great effect. Substituting the "I" with the "you", he makes his prose compelling with a style that is fast, cool, and in your face. Not many writers can get away with it but McInerney is one of them. One of the best.
"You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unravelled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of Brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder."