I think the greatest opening to a novel is of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, particularly the first two lines.
“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don’t know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, its is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then– let it get even worse!”
I am all of these things, but also a fundamentally deceitful man as well, something trained over years and habitualized, and again, fully in spite of no one but myself. Ask anyone about me and their opinion will echo the words of my Grade 12 English teacher in his university recommendation letter – “an affable young man with a wry sense of humor.” If “affable” means self-loathing, and “wry sense of humor” means internally wrought with suffering, then he was spot on.
I suppose in high school my illness had just begun, and in spite of any eccentricities that could easily have been interpreted as adolescent silliness, my external behavior was likely not that much different from my colleagues. But as they rough-housed and horse-played in class before the teacher’s arrival, I sat on my desktop observing and trying to comprehend why I felt so different.
Those in my life today rarely see more than one side of me. They are treated to that same affable and humorous character my English teacher was so convince existed. They see the “calm within the storm” that a former employer noted in the midst of company chaos, they see a man who smiles convincingly (and consciously) walking down the street and through the halls at work. They see someone successful and content, and completely well-adapted to the easy life of a university educated, white anglo-saxon, suburban dwelling (but thank all that is Holy I don’t live in such a soul-sucking place) middle aged man. By all counts, I have nothing to complain about.
But the real me sits here in a basement room below the busy sidewalk above. The light is ample enough to illuminate the shapes of things, and the sound from the people nearby is a murmur. The real me feels tearful an unhealthy amount of time, and although not actively seeking my demise and is horrified by pain and suffering, understands that death is a release. The real me clutches onto long solitary runs through the mountains as one would to their savior, hoping and praying to feel good, and to become and remain an affable young man and not so different from others.
Not everyday is like this, but they exist.