Under the Covers: Books should start at the beginning

February 12, 2015

Sometimes, the bits that go nowhere are the most important ones.

I’ve been reading Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I know, I know. I’m about seven years late to the Swedish murder-mystery party. I’m only two hundred pages in—not even close to where blood starts getting spilled and the going gets exciting—but I’m already loving it. Lisbeth Salander—that’s the tattooed (and pierced and hair-dyed) girl of the title—is reeling me in. I wondered what in her past has landed her in such a precipitous state. I wondered how she became such a talented personal investigator despite “closing her ears and refusing to lift a pen to write anything” straight through her nine years of schooling.

I’ve caught myself pondering questions like these while waiting at the bus stop or frying eggs in the morning. Salander is both an intriguing vision of female empowerment and a funhouse agglomeration of twisted manic-pixie traits. Whenever she’s on the page, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is electric.

She and the great characters in Larsson’s novel keep me reading—even though the twists haven’t even started yet. I’ve covered a substantial amount of text so far, but the novel’s plot up to this point has been decidedly anti-thrilling.

But I don’t have a problem with it. I’m getting to know Lisbeth and her counterpart, disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and I’m picking up details about the bleak Swedish world they inhabit. It feels like Larsson is setting me up for a version of the classic locked-room murder mystery—only with an isolated northern island taking the place of the Orient Express.

Reviewers complained about the book’s slow beginnings when it was first published. “Not a breakneck page-turner,” crowed the Independent. “It takes Blomkvist almost half the book to make any kind of breakthrough.” There’s dozens of Goodreads forum threads asking the same question—“How long until I get to the good part?”

I’ve often found, though, that the slow moments towards the beginning of an exciting book are my favorite. They’re comforting for readers, and allow authors to develop a world to set their story in without the pressure to deliver whirlwind plot points and pump the story forward.

Whenever I think about luxurious expositions, the first thing that comes to mind is Harry Potter. The first six books all began by introducing new characters, allowing for entertaining antics, and placing me firmly in Hogwarts, a place I felt comfortable inhabiting. I was always able to get my bearings before the adventure really began.

But Deathly Hallows, the last Harry Potter, ripped that security blanket away from me. There was no going back to Hogwarts, and the plot began taking hectic turns from the get-go. I felt a bit betrayed that Harry, Ron, and Hermione weren’t going back to the place I’d grown so fond of for one last comfortable introduction to a new story. It meant no more quidditch games and classrooms tricks from Fred and George, no more galavanting through Hogsmeade, no more of what brought me to the series in the first place.

Stories that start in the middle of things have alienated me in the past. I don’t know why the conflict is happening, just that it’s there. The action that the reader is forced into often isn’t as meaningful as it would be if the I had a better grasp on the characters involved. Faulkner’s Light in August threw me off for just this reason. I wish I knew a bit more about Lena Grove before getting thrown on the road with her in a quest to find the father of her unborn child. I put the book down within the first 50 pages because I didn’t feel much of a connection to the characters. That early in the book, the characters were just vessels for the events transpiring and not real people. It rang hollow.

Books with lengthy introductions don’t face the same problem. They generally give me chance to meet a character in their daily life and understand how they deal with mundane challenges before they’re confronted with the extraordinary. It’s a delicate balancing act. Too much background detail, to be sure, can bore me to tears, but too little runs the risk of throwing the reader into a plot without a favorite character to cheer for. And to be honest, I’d rather go nowhere with someone I know than to the ends of the earth with someone I don’t. 

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