When protagonist Josie Tyrell mentions that John Lennon had just been shot in the opening of Janet Fitch’s novel, Paint It Black, we immediately know that this story is set in 1980.
Having served its primary purpose, some writers would drop the historical reference and move on. Not Fitch. She makes such good use of Lennon’s death in her opening that one wonders if she chose that era just so she could have access to it.
Let’s look at how she drops this information into the second half of her first paragraph, after a few sentences that establish that Josie Tyrell is modeling for an artist friend:
Henry Ko wasn’t painting well today. He had to stop every few minutes to wipe his eyes on the back of his hand, while Double Fantasy circled around on the studio stereo. Everyone was playing it now. John Lennon had just been shot in New York, and wherever Josie went, people were playing the same fucking Beatles songs until you wanted to throw up. At least Double Fantasy had Yoko Ono.
Already Fitch has used the event to characterize Josie, who does not want us to forget the woman behind the man. But Fitch also uses the event to create subtext. I’ve added footnotes to show a connection to the story to come, illustrating how Josie’s perception of Lennon’s murder will weave into the fabric of her story:
On the cover that leaned against the dirty couch, John and Yoko pressed together for a kiss they would never finish.1 People were always trashing Yoko Ono, blaming her for breaking up the Beatles,2 but Josie knew they were just jealous that John preferred Yoko to some bloated megaband.3 Nobody ever really loved a lover. Because love was a private party, and nobody got on the guest list.
- 1In just a few pages, Josie will find out that her boyfriend, Michael—who said he was going away on a trip to concentrate on his painting—has killed himself.
- 2Michael’s mother will blame Josie for his problems.
- 3Michael’s mother is a renowned concert pianist, and her competitive condescension toward Josie will prove to be Josie’s main obstacle through the rest of the novel.
Then, Fitch adds in another, more esoteric historical fact:
Henry kept crying about John Lennon. Josie felt worse about Darby Crash. Darby had just killed himself in an act of desperate theater,4 a gesture swamped by the Beatle’s death like a raft in the backwash of a battleship.5
- 4Foreshadows Michael’s suicide.
- 5Foreshadows Josie’s narrative arc—she doesn’t want to get swept away by Michael’s death.
Back to the painter’s studio. When Ko ends the session, he and Josie get high together. More foreshadowing:
She toked along with him, knee to knee, and thought about the guy who shot Lennon. Shot by a desperate fan. On the news, fans were always desperate.6
- 6Desperation, and Josie’s need to rise above it in a way that Michael could not, will be a theme throughout the book.
Still high, Josie heads back to the cabin she shares with Michael, hoping he has returned home from his painting trip. [Read more…]