Albert of AdelaideAlbert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To compare the story of a platypus in search of Old Australia to the allegedly deep, profound post-apocalyptic nihilism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is, it may seem,  an apples-to-watermelons comparison.

But, shave off Cormac McCarthy’s layers of pretentious faux Faulknerway prose, and humans-reduced- to-pronouns nihilism, and you have the story of a journey through the heart of darkness that is just darkness and virtually no story.

With Howard L. Anderson’s Albert of Adelaide, on the other hand, you get a journey into and out of the heart of darkness, as seen through the eyes of a platypus, Albert, escaped from the Adelaide Zoo to search for a promised land known as Old Australia. What Albert finds instead is a pyromaniacal wombat, drunken bandicoots, a militia of kangaroos (bent on preserving the purity and superiority of marsupialness over other species)and various and sundry misadventures in a barren desert settlement known as the Gates of Hell.

Unlike McCarthy’s dark, soulless novel, Anderson has achieved with Albert of Adelaide what few supposedly literary novels do—give readers a story and characters to care about, even as they are committing atrocious acts of violence, and a protagonist worth caring about, as he preserves his humanity (or would that be platypussity?). Something McCarthy’s The Road, his protagonists, fails to do.

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The First Rule of Beginning a Story . . .

. . . don’t start with strangers bashing each other in the mouth or the nuts or anywhere else. “[I]f you plunge instantly into the action, you risk losing the reader,” writes Damon Knight in Creating Short Fiction. “It is hard to take much interest in absolute strangers, no matter how enthusiastically they may be bashing each other.”

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules of Write Club, as Chuck Palahniuk demonstrates in the opening of Fight Club:

fight 2Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die. For a long time though, Tyler and I were best friends. People are always asking, did I know about Tyler Durden.

Why does this beginning work, though the narrator has a gun shoved in his mouth in the hook? (Also note the comma splice. Does that work for you? Why? I like it; it speeds the beginning, alerts you to the roller coaster ride you are about to begin, and tells you you’re about to get your nose bloodied, or worse, much, much worse.) I think Palahniuk’s beginning works, because, if you are like me, you’re suddenly asking who is this person who gets you a job then shoves a gun in your mouth? What kind of psycho is this? It raises suspense.

But Knight is probably right. You have to begin a story and make the reader care about the narrator. And unless the narrator has a gun in his mouth, you probably won’t be interested. You don’t have to have someone in such dire straits to get your money for  nothing and your beginning for free. You do need tension and suspense or provoke interest, as  Knight confirms, “The opening must establish character, setting, situation, the mood and tone of the story; it must provoke interest, arouse curiosity, suggest conflict, start the movement of the plot—all this in about two hundred words.”

What do you think? What makes a good beginning?

—Todd