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