“epigraph, n.: a brief quotation placed at the beginning of a book, chapter, etc.”
“Loneliness took me for a ride…”
Greetings. You’ve picked up a new novel. Isn’t it exciting? Gonna be a wily one, if I’m any indication. In fact, I’ll bet you chose this book based on the title, the cover, the author photo, and—the clincher—me, the epigraph.
I’m thrilled to be part of your process. And I really am great, aren’t I? I’m profound. I’m witty as hell. I’m by Langston Hughes, T. S. Eliot, John Keats, or Joni Mitchell. And look at me—just look at me—all duded up in my best font and shiny italics, sprouting a long, elegant em dash, like a Gatsby–era cigarette, pointing to a first and last name. Is this novel off to a hot start or what? Do you love me? You love me.
Except, well… don’t look now, but I don’t really have anything to do with the actual novel. The truth is I am meaningless and expendable. But shh. Never mind. Forge ahead. See me. Study me. Move on.
Consider the staff that brought me here. The author chose me. The agent fought for me. The publishing house paid hundreds to the estate of First and Last Name so I could squat here in these auspicious opening pages. Examine me in a classroom full of English majors. I desire to be understood. Because, well, I guess the irony is, I don’t really understand myself.
I mean, what the hell do I mean?
I’m mildly or aggressively taken out of context. I’m a full sentence, and yet, somehow, I’ve sprouted ellipses. Can somebody get these fucking dots off me? Or are they breadcrumbs leading to the inevitable page 1?
Forget it. Go to page 1. Did you like page 1? Are you on to page 2? Good. I’m here to move things along in a cool yet forgettable way. You’re on page 8? Whoa there, speedy pants. Don’t forget about me.
But do—do forget about me. It’s best for everyone. Discerning readers will return to me in confusion, wondering what I’m doing here. The rest of you, I know what you’re thinking: give it a hundred pages. Give it the whole book. A month after you’ve finished the novel, you’ll be hiking the Serengeti and boom—my meaning will present itself to you. Well, pal, I wish I had better news for you other than:
- The author read a book (or part of a book) and wants you to know that.
- The author desperately wants you to think they listen to cool music.
- The author has finally achieved their early-twenties dream of getting a book deal and is now making good on a promise from three failed novels ago that, once they landed their first book, it would wear me as an epigraph. In this way, I am no better than a high school yearbook quote. In fact, I’m worse because the person quoting me isn’t seventeen anymore but thirty-eight.
Look, we’re not always pointless. Sometimes we’re practical. Look at the epigraph to Jesus’ Son, for example, or the one for A Raisin in the Sun.
But these are exceptions. The rest of us? Best not to look too carefully. We’re busy performing the author’s ego. See us. Have faith that we’ll mean something. Then, mercifully, let us go. Maybe we’re in a foreign language. Maybe—holy shit—there are three of us. Just keep flipping, buddy. If you want to get out of this novel alive, stop questioning our raison d’être. Otherwise, this whole mirage starts to break down. And who wants that? You? The author? Nobody wants that.
Page 30, wow—you’re over the hump. I’m safely forgotten. But back there, after the alienating dedication? Before the gratuitous “Part I”? Thanks for seeing me.
And, hey: keep the faith.