The Art of Steven Carr: Directing Reader Attention in 'Noise'
There are four basic genres in fiction - Epic, Tragedy, Irony and Comedy - and each have their own patterns, though all are based on the Epic, or what we normally think of as a story. The Epic forms about 90% of what we consider to be fiction, and it is upon its power that the other three genres largely draw. Irony, in particular, can be savagely effective when it teases the reader with a framework which at first appears to be leading them towards the standard ‘victory’ at the end of an Epic, before twisting everything into the gloomy dystopic ending which is its hallmark.
Steven Carr is a master of Irony. Using various techniques, he usually beguiles the reader into a false security, but then subverts that with an ending that you didn’t see coming. Or, on occasion, he deceives you into thinking that there will be one of those twists and then, when it doesn’t materialise, you are left to reassess the situation in a new light. In this article, I’m going to briefly look at one of the stories from Carr’s first collection, SAND - of necessity, there will be spoilers, so please enjoy the tale for itself first if you can. You can get the collection of stories here.
Let’s take a look at ‘Noise’.
Carr captivates readers here by using a range of senses - or lack of senses - to envelop them, as in the opening paragraph:
The sound of the 5:10 train coming through town was comforting. In the morning darkness of her bedroom, Mrs. Lilly sat up on the edge of her bed, pulled her robe that had been draped over her walker from the top crossbar and slipped her arms into the yellow cotton sleeves. She positioned her legs between those of the walker and placed her hands on the rubber hand grips and stood up, then balanced herself as she turned with the walker toward her opened bedroom door. The hardwood floor was cool and smooth beneath her bare feet as she slowly made her way out into the long hallway that led to the den, bathroom and, at a right turn, to the kitchen and a small breakfast nook. By memory and years of experience she knew the width between one wall to the next without need for any light, the exact location of the doors, and where every painting was hanging along the way.
Note the details: Mrs. Lilly has clearly placed her robe over the top crossbar of her walker precisely so that she can don it in darkness the following morning; the way her getting up is described with anatomical trifles such as the placement of her feet gives the impression of frailty but also of an ordered mind (not to mention her intimate and comforting familiarity with the train timetable). But it is the coolness and smoothness of the hardwood floor and the way in which ‘memory and years of experience’ guide her down the corridor with no light which draws us in: step by fragile step we accompany the character down a passageway that she knows so well, and therefore we, by reader osmosis, come to know too.
A lesser author would have forgotten about the coolness of the floor after that, but Carr leads us into the scene by continuing the sensation for us: ‘The temperature of the floor had become cooler, owing to the white marble tiles imported from Spain.’ Not just white marble tiles, we note, but ones imported from Spain, just as the lace curtains come from the Azores, the antique plates have scenes from Granada and Toledo and the large cookie jar was ‘purchased at a shop in the old Jewish section of Lisbon’. Physical scenery included to add psychological depth; plus a shift in senses, then: ‘She bent over and inhaled the aroma of Estelle’s homemade oatmeal cookies’. Soon afterwards, after more minutely described motions, Mrs. Lilly ‘nibbled on the cookies, savouring the cinnamon and subtle seasoning of nutmeg as she waited for Estelle to arrive’. As she savours them, so do we. In a couple of paragraphs, we are further entranced by ‘the smell of fresh coffee and the sound of eggs frying in the skillet’. Nor does Estelle, the arriving companion-help, bring breakfast to Mrs. Lilly on any old tray, but on ‘a small silver tray; a gift from a friend long deceased’.
The array of senses, interspersed with the specifics about motion and objects, has to some extent ‘glued’ our attention in the tale so far. There has not yet been any hint of those standard conventions that most writing guides will tell you are vital to any tale: what has been effective is the more subtle ‘pasting’ of ourselves into the scene using perceptions.
The stronger glue comes with the introduction of some conflict, of course: conflict is necessary for any story to be effective, but conflict not for its own sake but because of the ‘sticking power’ it creates: we wonder, when Estelle asks if the neighbours are up yet, why that is important. It is soon explained:
Mrs. Lilly watched out the window for signs that her neighbours had indeed decided to start their day, which coincided with when the pleasantness of her own day always began to decline. To Mrs. Lilly, her neighbours were a nuisance, loud and perpetually busy at one intrusively noisy task or another in their yard or on their house. Their four hyperactive children brought Mrs. Lilly’s general sense of serenity to an abrupt end. This section of High Street was not known for such unbridled and unwelcome activity.
Carr paints for us in the few words the polarity between Mrs. Lilly’s ‘general sense of serenity’ and the ‘unbridled and unwelcome activity’ of the neighbours. As we have viewed the story so far through the viewpoint of Mrs. Lilly, we are at first positioned against the neighbours ourselves - it is only as Carr elaborates on recent events that our view begins to shift slightly, especially when we are told of an attempt by Francine, the wife next door, to get to know her neighbours:
Her name was Francine, a New Yorker with an accent that lacked any refinement. Soon after moving in she had attempted to insinuate herself into Mrs. Lilly’s life by knocking on the door and having the effrontery to introduce herself, but Mrs. Lilly quickly put a stop to it declaring that she had a headache and wasn’t accepting visitors. Francine had ignored the subtle invitation to leave and continued talking even as Mrs. Lilly closed the door in her face. Francine had not returned since then, but the entire Long brood made their presence known on a daily and almost hourly basis from sunrise to sunset.
What was gradually building up in our perceptions as Mrs. Lilly’s refined taste and attention to detail now steps over a line into her fixed ideas and prejudice: through the use of specific terms like ‘refinement’, ‘insinuate’, ‘effrontery’ and ‘brood’ we come to see that it is Mrs. Lilly who perhaps is the problem, not the Longs.
If we were in any doubt, the ironic comedy of Mrs. Lilly’s reaction to neighbour Edward Long collecting his newspaper from the lawn in his pyjamas and slamming the door behind him makes sure that we get the point: ‘As always, Mrs. Lilly was aghast. In all her life she had never slammed a door.’
Now alerted to our unreliable narrator, we view her interpretation of what is occurring next door ironically:
Mrs. Lilly finished her breakfast having watched Edward Long and his two older children leave the house, he on his way to the college and the children on their way to school. They were a vociferous lot, sending shouts of parting pleasantries until the children had turned the corner and were out of sight and Edward Long had gotten into his eyesore of a vehicle and noisily driven off up High Street. Then the two youngest children were brought out to the front yard where Francine Long sat on the front stoop of their home and watched the children fight and claw their way through one skull-crushingly noisy game after another.
Are they a ‘vociferous lot’ or merely happy? ‘Sending shouts of parting pleasantries until the children had turned the corner and were out of sight’ sounds like familial affection; the wife watching the children ‘fight and claw their way through one skull-crushingly noisy game after another’ could be just a caring mother observing her children enjoying themselves.
The apparently chaotic but possibly just lively and good-natured behaviour of the neighbours is then immediately contrasted with Mrs. Lilly’s placid and more ordered world:
Having had enough, Mrs. Lilly stood up, walked her way through the large dining room, an elegant space highlighted by an English walnut table, low hanging crystal chandelier, and large English paintings of different breeds of dogs, hunters on horseback in pursuit of foxes, and pastoral scenes of shepherds with their flocks.
More contrasts are presented to us: Francine and the children disappear into the house for varying lengths of time ‘only to reappear seeming more energised to wreak havoc on the peace and tranquility of High Street’. The neighbours seem active and creative - they are working on their home, much to Mrs. Lilly’s annoyance: ‘the Longs seemed to have no limit of needs for one type of repairman or another who by use of hammers, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, drills and backhoes raised the noise decibels to ear-achingly high levels.’ But when Mrs. Lily comments to Estelle that ‘something needs to be done’, we are gently moved back from sharing that conclusion by Estelle’s reaction:
Estelle nodded knowingly and went into the large dining room and began polishing the walnut table with great intensity while humming.
Mrs. Lilly’s ponderings on what to do about the situation take on a comic flavour for us as readers, though Mrs. Lilly herself considers them serious:
Mrs. Lilly dressed and again was assisted by Estelle out to the front porch where she ruminated about how little she knew about how automobile brakes were interfered with to cause them to malfunction, or how poison could be put in a jar of tea and delivered to the Longs. She had no idea how one acquired poison, would not be able to take the tea to them herself, and she decided she would most likely be found out to be the guilty party if she carried out such a crime. Mrs. Lilly looked on as Francine and her two youngest children went in and out of the house throughout the day, imagining many forms of calamity that could befall them and thus forcing them to leave the neighborhood, none practical or within her ability to make happen.
Carr doesn’t allow our sympathy for the protagonist to evaporate entirely though. As the day goes by, Mrs. Lilly realises that she knows very little about Estelle, despite being almost completely dependent upon her. And when Estelle goes home, Mrs. Lilly feels lonely. It would have been easier for Carr to turn his protagonist into a two-dimensional figure of fun, but we find that in this way we cannot entirely separate ourselves from her agitation, even when it retains a comic dimension:
She stopped at the window in the breakfast nook many times looking out at the dark house next door, hoping the Longs were each dead in their beds, sent to the afterlife by some leaking toxic gas.
When the ending of the short tale arrives, therefore, we have a richer and more subtle response than we might have had - Estelle thinks at first that her employer has died, and we feel her sorrow; but as Mrs. Lilly is carried out of the house on a gurney, the last noise we hear with her is the slamming door at the Long house, and that symbolises for us the gap between the two poles and what might have been.
And this is just one example of Carr's mastery, about which more articles will follow.