First Lines to Remember in This Year’s New Yorker Fiction

The first line of a story is what a writer uses to pull the reader in. It is also often the hardest one to write. There are first lines that create a mood: “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a forest” is how Jennifer Egan begins “What the Forest Remembers.” There are first lines that set a scene: “In June, Grant drove his project Mazda with the FFA sticker south, out of Montana’s spring rain squalls to Oklahoma, drinking Red Bull and Jolt Cola, grinding his teeth, with his saddle in the back seat” is the evocative opening salvo of Thomas McGuane’s “Take Half, Leave Half.” There are first lines that aim to introduce a character, and those that aim to introduce a problem: “She did not want to visit the old lady,” Alexander MacLeod writes at the beginning of his story “Once Removed.” There are first lines that start a story in the middle. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “Nondisclosure Agreement” opens this way: “There must have been some sort of defective wiring in the early-warning system of my brain, because by the time the owner put his hand on my thigh I was already in way too deep.” There are first lines from which you feel you can predict the kind of story you’re embarking on, and first lines that give little away: “ ‘Yes,’ she said” is the first sentence of Shirley Jackson’s “Call Me Ishmael.” And there are first lines that tell an entire story by themselves. Consider the opening sentence of Ben Lerner’s “Café Loup”:

When I became a father, I began to worry not only that I would die and not be able to care for my daughter but that I would die in an embarrassing way, that my death would be an abiding embarrassment for Astra—that in some future world, assuming there is a future, she will be on a date with someone, hard as that is for me to imagine, and her date will ask, ‘What does your father do?,’ and she will say, ‘He died when I was little,’ and her date will respond, ‘I’m sorry,’ hesitate, and then ask, in a bid for intimacy, how I died, and Astra will feel ashamed, will look down into her blue wine, there will be blue wine in the future, and say, ‘He had an aneurysm on the toilet,’ which is one of the ways I often fear I might die.

As a way of celebrating the many, varied New Yorker stories of 2022, we offer up this quiz. Test your recall of the year’s fiction, or your instinct for writers’ methods, by matching each first line to its author’s name. Then click each first line to see the answer.

Cynthia Ozick   |   Arthur Krystal   |   Camille Bordas   |   Jonathan Lethem   |   Joshua Ferris   |   Nicole Krauss   |   Sheila Heti   |   Mohsin Hamid   |   Lauren Groff   |   Alejandro Zambra

1. I didn’t go to New York, because I didn’t want to cut my hair.

2. He woke to an angry house and darkness in the windows.

3. This is not a rewrite of that story in which plants and animals and people keep winding up dead over the course of a school year, but it starts the same, and it feels odd not to acknowledge, so I will.

4. She was often tempted to be done.

5. One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.

6. When the biographer of Emanuel Teller came to see me, he left behind his hat.

7. The characters ride into the story aboard a 1976 Winnebago Minnie Winnie, one driven breakneck across broiling asphalt, overspilling its lane on both sides.

8. The paradox of personal religion: God has abandoned me, so I’ll pray.

9. She was shampooing her hair with cherries.

10. On or around May 5th of 2020, he just stopped.

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