MUSINGS OF A STORY MERCHANT

Thursday, February 19, 2009

POINT OF VIEW—A NOVEL’S GRIPPING OPENING PAGE

For years, in lectures on novel-writing, I’ve used the opening page of Jerzy’s Kosinski’s sociopathic thriller, Cockpit, to illustrate

(a) Point of view—a grippingly successful use of second-person POV, where the narrator addresses the reader directly.

(b) The fact that a protagonist, like Tarden in this novel, can be sympathetic without being likeable.

(c) The fact that reader’s turn pages because they can’t NOT turn the page. Here the narrator induces in us a combination of voyeurism, horror, and curiosity that compels us to keep reading about this despicable character whose nature is painted in a few short paragraphs:

COCKPIT

Jerzy Kosinski

Although we have known each other for a long time and have spoken often, we have never spoken intimately. I was intrigued by you the first time we met at your party. Since then, I have wanted to see you alone but could never bring myself to ask.

You probably do not recall that, during the party, I headed toward one of the bathrooms, locking your bedroom door behind me. If anyone had tried to enter the room during my inspection if it, I would have explained I had locked that door because I had not been able to lock the one to the bathroom. I opened your closets and checked the proportion of evening dresses to sports clothes, noting their quality and condition. I examined your underwear and the heels and soles of your shoes. Then I flipped through some of the letters I found on your desk, read a few, and glanced over your checkbook, telephone and hotel bills and airline ticket receipts.

In the bathroom, I surveyed your cosmetics and studied the vials of pills in your medicine cabinet. I wrote down the name of each doctor on the label, the prescription date and indicated dosage, than took a sample from every bottle.

That evening, I talked to a couple in their thirties who said they had known you for years. The woman, a bit drunk, said, "look at me, Mr. Tarden. Once, a long time ago, I was soft and moist and supple. It was a time, if you can imagine, when staying thin wasn't a losing battle, when I didn't suffer from lower back pain, when I wasn't on my way to a drying out tank like so many other women. Now my only unique features are my fingerprints, which developed before I was born. When I was in high school, any idiot could foresee the kind of man I would marry, what our children would be like and the sort of home we would live in. Anyone could have predicted than that my life would become as dried out and bleached by alcohol and boredom as my hair and skin are by the sun and wind." She raised her Scotch in mocking salute. Her husband joined her in the toast and they both laughed, displaying their capped teeth, white against their dark tans.

When I returned home from the party, I took out the pills I has stolen from your bathroom and looked through the most recent edition of the Physicians’' Desk Reference, which includes full-sized, color reproductions of all currently marketed medications. I identified the proper chemical name of each of your drugs and read about its composition, use and side effects. For some reason, learning these details increased my desire to know you. The afternoon we met by accident and I drove you home, I wanted to invite you to the apartment I rent as Tarden, the only name you know me by. But I was afraid that, if I did see you alone, you might be upset by what I had to say, by my desire to share my life with you. I did not want to just tell you about my past. I wanted you to relive it.

Buy Cockpit on Amazon.

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