February 1, 2012 | by David Parker
Milton wasn’t working.
The aspiring novelist had already written the perfect dedication (“For my friends”), and he’d long had a list of possible titles, yet he still had no epigraph, the mysterious but meaningful quotation he’d seen at the beginning of every great book. He’d been holding John Milton in reserve for this very situation.
When contemplating the epigraph for his debut novel, the writer had always been confident that if all else failed, he could find inspiration in Shakespeare or Milton. For his part, the Bard hadn’t cooperated.
A line like “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” might work for a paperback legal thriller, but nothing Shakespeare wrote seemed appropriate for the “Borges meets Zola, if Zola had somehow been influenced by Nabokov” collection of loosely related vignettes set in a fictional megalopolis in an indeterminate near-future the writer hoped to get published by next fall.
He’d only turned to Milton and Shakespeare after an unprofitable foray into lyric poetry. He’d had high hopes for the English Romantics, reasoning that even the most obscure works of famous poets were still poems by writers people had heard of. Most readers wouldn’t care if a Byron passage in an epigraph came from a notebook the poet had tried to burn in a fire. They’d just see the poem; murmur, “Yes, Byron, he’s good”; and nod approvingly.
He’d been even more excited about modernist poetry. He didn’t understand William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens, but he suspected that no one else did, either. In his boldest moments, the writer had honestly believed he could pull any passage from Pound or Eliot and nobody would be able to tell that he had no idea what he was quoting.
He hadn’t wanted to consider traditional poets at all; his first instinct had been to get creative with his definition of “poetry.” He’d imagined opening his thousand-page chronicle of existential ennui with a few lines from Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! It would be the literary equivalent of leaning back and crossing his arms after making a devastatingly arch remark at a dinner party.
Even more than appearing clever, the writer had wanted to be profound.
He fancied himself a social novelist—“Realism is,” he’d often say with a wink, grinning while everyone waited for him to say what he thought realism was, before they realized that nothing else was coming—and he’d been sure that the best way to say, “Get ready for a kaleidoscopic, dystopian panorama of modern life” would be an epigraph of multiple quotations from disparate sources.
After a long day at the library, scrolling through microfiche in search of nineteenth-century sportswriting to pair with three lines of dialogue from Dr. Strangelove and a casserole recipe he’d found in an issue of Reader’s Digest, he decided to seek answers elsewhere.
Religious texts offered little guidance to the confused epigraphist. All the good lines from the Bible had already been used, and they didn’t sell the Koran at his local Barnes & Noble. He didn’t know what religion the Bhagavad Gita was for.
He knew readers loved non-Western folk wisdom or anything followed by the word traditional in parentheses. But he could never shake the feeling that ancient sayings from Africa tended to work best for novels about Africa or with at least an African character or two. The same went for East Asians, South Asians, and any manner of American Indian, dashing his short-lived dream to open his book by reprinting an entire chapter from the Navajo Book of the Dead.
Folklore had been daunting, but he’d been particularly nervous about contemporary pop-culture references. Juxtaposing rap lyrics with a sampling of a Homeric epic might seem like an appropriate way to celebrate thousands of years of the oral tradition, but the writer hadn’t dared risk the worst epitaph for an epigraph: it tried too hard.
In general, he preferred not to quote a translation at all, which had eliminated not only Homer but also Dante, Goethe, the Russians, and that one Icelandic writer. He’d also been certain to avoid foreign-language epigraphs. He pictured a reader opening his book, discovering a few lines of untranslated Czech, and immediately turning to the author photo to see what a real, live asshole looked like.
He’d refused to quote any living authors, even the writers who’d inspired his own work. He loved Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, but as a novelist himself, he was now their peer and equal. It would be inappropriate to quote them.
Now he couldn’t find an epigraph in Paradise Lost. He was beginning to understand what John Milton meant by “despair.”
Setting Milton aside, the writer finally hit rock bottom: fortune cookies. After spending a sunny afternoon cracking open stale sugary wontons, he found a cookie that had no fortune. The solution to his problem was, all of a sudden, overwhelmingly obvious.
The writer had always known that anything could be an epigraph. Equations, scientific formulas, and passages from technical manuals could be withering critiques of our dependence on technology. Nursery rhymes might suggest the infantilization of mass culture. Ads for luxury goods were referenda on American materialism. Random strings of words blindly selected from a dictionary served as trenchant commentary on the arbitrary nature of human experience.
But if he could truly choose anything as an epigraph, he could also choose nothing: the absence of an epigraph was itself an epigraph. The writer had failed to appreciate the depth of his own free will. The Wikipedia page for Paradise Lost was finally starting to make sense.
He bit into a broken cookie. It tasted terrible, but the author didn’t even notice. He had conquered the epigraph, and epigraph conquered, he could start writing his novel. All he needed now was a first sentence.
David Parker has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Awl, Grantland, and Politico.