Sound + Noise
Sacramento: Casperian Books, 2008
$13.50, 161 pages, ISBN 1-934081-04-4
Reviewed by Charles Holdefer
Université de Poitiers
'Only connect’, says E.M. Forster’s dictum, to which Curtis Smith’s Sound + Noise replies, ‘Only?!’ Smith affirms the wisdom of the idea while testifying to the difficulty people have in achieving it. Connection—between woman and man, material and spiritual, artist and audience—is depicted as crucial but often tantalizingly out of reach. This novel succeeds because of the way its poignant and sometimes humorous pages illuminate the struggle. There is nothing sour or jaded here, no sophomoric literary pessimism. Failure is everywhere, but so is possibility
Smith, the author of four previous books including essays and short stories, sets this novel in a small college town, one of those distinctive American communities with ‘a timeless flavor, eternally youthful, yet stagnant in a Peter Pan way’ . But this is not a typical ‘campus novel’. Instead of the inside jokes and competitive adulteries of intellectual careerists, the reader finds the less hermetic world of Tom and Jackie, two middle-aged, decidedly non-careerist seekers who do not know each other at the beginning of the story. Jackie runs the Lincoln Bar, a local redoubt for ‘townies’ in search of refuge from college-types. She is tough and capable and not afraid to face down a drunk with a baseball bat. Still, she fears her future. She yearns for more. Tom is an art professor at the college facing a very different problem. His religious beliefs are sorely tested by the plight of his wife, an accident-victim on a ventilator, now confined to a nursing home. Her prognosis is bleak. Tom cannot let go of his past. ‘When, he wonders, does hope become foolishness? At what point does faith crumble into delusion?’ .
How Tom and Jackie’s lives gradually intersect provides the intrigue of this story, which gathers force as it moves along. Chapters alternate points of view, allowing the reader to be privy to the characters’ motivations and miscues, and to see them in their own environment. The Lincoln Bar is both an oasis and a desert island, a precious place where Roger Miller still rules but where Jackie, who has known a life on the road as a back-up singer with a successful band and who in her maturity is discovering that she still harbors musical aspirations, feels increasingly trapped. Tom, for his part, inhabits a harrowing limbo between the ostensible ‘home’ of his present dingy apartment and the nursing home room of his wife, a twelve-by-twelve foot space that he has decorated with personal effects and marriage mementos in the desperate hope of maintaining a connection with a past that was cruelly seized from them:
Secretly, he fears that in his desire to express this hope by surrounding her with familiar things, he’s created a museum exhibit, the only thing missing a velvet rope around her bed, where nothing moves and nothing changes, where all sense of reference is locked in a slowly fading past. 
Sound + Noise offers a meditation on connections between time and space, particularly as experienced in the vast and unseen America that exists under a person’s skull, referred to in this novel as an individual’s 'ghost life'. The impetuous and self-doubting Jackie desires 'a perimeter of beliefs she could stand squarely in the center of and say, "This is who I am" ' . For Jackie, finding this perimeter is a quest, a work in progress, involving self-exposure. Depending on her mood, she feels the exhilaration of a streaker or the self-loathing of a woman riddled with fears about body image, sometimes thinking of herself as a ‘cow’. In such examples, you could ‘call it low self-esteem, and Jackie would turn around and call it self-preservation: the repeated scarring of a tender area until it hardens’ . A more liberating figure in her ghost life is the specter of Ethel Merman, the ultimate trooper, evoked here in all her campy glory. Ethel knows no fear.
Tom, unlike Jackie, possesses a ‘perimeter of beliefs’ but in his case it has been battered by events and is barely functioning. Roman Catholic in form but unorthodox in content, his ghost life includes the possibility of real ghosts, and a spirituality found in nature and art as well as in church. To his credit, Smith largely avoids the language of catechism or New Age Speak, and the tragic situation of Tom’s wife keeps the story grounded in the dire urgencies of this world. For Tom, ‘the spiritual side of him is becoming exhausted from three years of unanswered prayers, a marathon of fruitless hope’ . When Jackie enters his perimeter, it is both disturbing and a welcome relief. But where should his loyalties lie? What should he do?
‘What to do?’, in these circumstances, is more than a romantic dilemma. In the broadest sense, it is the philosophical anxiety that animates the novel, and which is announced in the title. Sound + Noise is a curious name for a book. At first glance, it struck me as an awkward choice—perhaps a missed opportunity. Then, as the story developed, the reason for the title became clear, and the choice seemed apt. Sound + Noise poses a classic phenomenological question:
A tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, but noise requires a human ear. Tom thinks of his wife’s room. When she gasps or sighs, he wants to be there to hear it, to record it for her .
Usually the example of the tree in the forest is restricted to the experience of the event, but Smith complicates matters by foregrounding the circumstances in which the experience takes place, and thus adds a moral or ethical dimension. The sound referred to in the above quotation is that of Tom’s wife’s breathing. It is a sound which, over time, tests the limits of his loyalty to a certain version of what is real. Does she depend on him in her plight, or does her plight depend on him? To the novel’s credit, Karen’s situation is not a source of melodrama or miserabilism. But it is a stern and uncompromising horror and it does not conveniently go away. Of course, there are other sounds, too, other varieties of experience, which are just as precarious:
There’s heartbreak between sound and noise, the place where we are our only audience. The canvases we paint, the songs we sing, the ways we try to love one another—our days are full of the sounds we make. But the world is awash in sounds unappreciated, sounds that never have the luxury of becoming noise. And then he thinks of his years of prayers for Karen, and wonders if they have been heard, or are they, too, stranded somewhere between sound and noise .
In Sound + Noise there is an aching wistfulness such as one finds in Nabokov's Pnin. Both novels share a campus backdrop, both offer doses of humor and, despite some obvious differences in sensibility, both operate at an emotional pitch which mixes pain and hope. Tom’s yearnings are not so different from Timofey Pnin’s as he contemplates his lost love, Mira Belochkin, a victim of unspeakable horrors of war:
Pnin walked slowly under the solemn pines. The sky was dying. He did not believe in an autocratic God. He did believe, dimly, in a democracy of ghosts. These souls of the dead, perhaps, formed committees, and these, in continuous session, attended to the destinies of the quick. (1)
Tom is neither as old nor as unlucky as Timofey Pnin, but he is similarly attempting to connect—if only he can—to what he holds precious. The consolations of art and reconstructed memory occupy much of his life. Some of his musings are provocative, for instance, ‘The best aspects of art are beyond, or perhaps beneath, the constraints of language’ . Note the 'beneath’—it flirts with gnomic but is very intriguing, and dramatically integrated into the story, suggesting a space other than performance, an alternative to that heartbreak distance between sound and noise. Elsewhere in the novel, for instance when Jackie overhears one of his lectures or becomes clumsy at a gallery, the effect is less satisfying, because the reader senses the author behind the scenes, pulling the levers to reinforce his point.
Such moments are rare, though, and more often the novel leavens its philosophical heft with humor. In his recent collection of short fiction, The Species Crown (2007), particularly in stories like ‘The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla!’ and the brilliant ‘My Totally Awesome Funeral’, Smith displayed a gift for the funny and phantasmagoric. This gift surfaces in Sound + Noise in a scene where Tom’s best friend, an author with extraordinary bad timing, takes hallucinogenic mushrooms and then walks into a surprise party where his family and friends dress as characters out of his book. His infant daughter wears whiskers, and his high school English teacher confronts him, ‘ “You’re the one who created us, son”, [...] He raises his wine glass in an arthritic salute. “From your book. All of us” ’ . The effect is harrowing and very, very funny. Elsewhere, Smith juxtaposes a testy conversation about religion with a reunion of old college friends for an ultimate frisbee tournament. The out-of-shape and out-of-practice do battle. Frisbee becomes a gentle metaphor, about those undergraduate days when one argued intensely about difficult philosophical questions. And an ambiguity remains: if, in later years, we more rarely participate in such discussions, is it because we’re so much smarter now? Are we less naive? Or have we become softer, more slow afoot, and wary of protecting ourselves from injury? Smith writes well about sport and the body, and how they can connect with the mind.
The lingering sentiment of this book is one of tenderness arising out of loss and grief. For Jackie, the problem is patience, of waiting for balance, and knowing how to notice it. By the end, she is ‘the streaker at rest’ . For Tom, it is a matter of letting go. In his regrets over his wife’s accident and knowing how any small gesture might have changed the course of events, 'private waves of apprehension overtake him whenever a friend dons his coat, and he has to fight the urge to rush forward and hug him, to remind him to be careful before he ventures out’ . Getting beyond this paralyzing awareness will require a new way of connecting. His crisis of faith (fortunately, in my opinion) has none of Graham Greene’s claustrophobic precision of a problem being worked out doctrinally, where the cards are stacked. Rather, its resolution seems to depend on more elusive and unknowable factors. Tom feels not that he has an answer, exactly, but that he is once again capable of praying for one. Perhaps the beauty and love and faith that he desires exist in the unsettling manner of the voices of unknown artists seeking an audience, seeking to go from sound to noise, in ‘a sky filled with words that flutter and dart like swarming bats, a planet darkened by words unheard’ .
When Jackie and Tom finally connect, it is less a matter of conventional romance than an expression recalling the precarious need described in Philip Larkin’s poem, ‘The Mower’:
We should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
Or, to put it another way, the mystery of life is not that it is so horrible, or so beautiful, but that it is so horrible and beautiful at the same time. In this thoughtful and original novel, Curtis Smith captures the tingle and the shudder of that mystery.