“First Impressions” consists entirely of first sentences from 268 short stories published in The New Yorker over the past 20 years, from 1997 to 2017, all of which are cited below. After collecting every first sentence, I found they fell into a number of patterns, some surprising, others obvious: points of view, different tenses, genre fiction like western and military, stories set in smalltown America, stories set in Montana (oddly there were a lot), etc. I then arranged these patterns into a sequence of vignettes, a short story in its own right….
The author of “First Impressions” … I suppose “author” is the correct term … is Tom Comitta. Here are the first two paragraphs of the story:
The above is not my real name—the fellow it belongs to gave me his permission to sign it to this story. This is the truth, whichever way you look at it. I’m not a bad guy.
Approaching eighty, I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know but not intimately. My memory is proglottidean, like the tapeworm, but unlike the tapeworm it has no head, it wanders in a maze, and any point may be the beginning or the end of its journey.
What do you think? I think some stories have interesting first lines. I like the “My memory is proglottidean” one. On the other hand, for me, the first paragraph does not actually work for me. My impression is not of a coherent paragraph that establishes, or even hints at, the protagonist’s voice. My actual impression is of three random sentences jumbled together for no reason, which I expect is precisely the impression Comitta did not want to give. Your mileage may differ, however.
Does “First Impressions” succeed as a story? As an artistic examination of the concept of “story”? For me the answer is … not really. Sorry! If I hadn’t known how Comitta built the story, I think I would still have found too many of the sentences oddly placed and most of the paragraphs incoherent. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just can’t forget how the story was formed well enough to read it properly.
Click through and read the whole story if you wish, and let me know what you think of it.