by Marlin Barton in Best American Short Stories 2010 (Originally published in The Sewanee Review)
Barton captures Depression-era setting and overwhelming conflict that is as grand as it is subtle, but the execution is swallowed by soft prose and a clumsy ending.
Janey and her mother rent out a room to a photographer named Mr. Clark, who is in town to complete an assignment for the WPA. Janey, who is middle-age and deaf, has an unhealthy, oppressive relationship with her mother. The relationship sets up a conflict and resolution toward Janey’s eventual defiance. And Mr. Clark, it seems, is the trigger that will make that happen.
Immediately, Janey, through whom we see the world of this narrative, notices something about Mr. Clark, “some other dimension to him” that she does not yet fully grasp. Clumsy sexual feelings are aroused by a simple glance: “He turned and looked at her, and she grew uncomfortable again under his gaze, though she didn’t feel as if he were looking at her as a woman, the way a woman might want if it was the right man.” To make matters worse, Janey’s mother is dependent on her daughter in a way that restricts her. When Mr. Clark asks Janey to help, she agrees, and the reader knows that an important rift has opened between her and her mother.
Building to a sort of eventual conclusion that leaves the reader both satisfied in his knowledge that he saw it coming and surprised at the seriousness of the final act, “Into Silence” does indeed end with silence.
Barton’s world is fully realized. Each characters’ motivations and desires come through clearly, and he Depression-era South seethes in dry, crumbling existence, hinting at what once was. But bland prose and a trick ending leave the reader unsatisfied.
Silence serves to elucidate many aspects of this story, especially its characters, who say more by not speaking. In one ease of under-explanation, Barton avoids telling how Mr. Clark knows sign language: “…no explanation about when or why he’d learned to speak…” Indeed, to Janey it seems he was born with the ability to communicate. It is important, too, that Janey keeps his ability to herself, not telling her mother, something “she could keep to herself, or maybe for herself.” Her power, like her mother’s, is the ability to keep silent. For after a childhood illness left her deaf, and she’d begun to grow accustomed to a silent world, her deafness became “a separate place to retreat into as far as she might need at any given moment…”
Barton briefly visits an interesting description of the family’s house in a depiction that shows the building in need of repair, something that had come from the earth and now may be returning to it. The columns across the front still have “branch stubs… so each column looked as though it grew up out of the ground.” Knotholes and treelike columns give the house a look of a forest cabin, constructed of the land around it. After the construction of the house, Janey’s grandfather was kicked out of the Methodist congregation, and then he bought the Episcopal church, and had it shipped closer, across the river. This church was where Janey “had heard her last sound.” These buildings, as well as those that Mr. Clark photographs, seem to create a series of objects within which Janey’s life exists, or where it is trapped.
Yet, the story’s prose isn’t particularly exciting, an aspect which at times made me want to move on to the end:
Her mother wouldn’t want her to go places with her father, would become silent and withdrawn when they returned. She didn’t want Janey going to the store by herself, even for a quick errand. One day her mother found her playing in the woods behind their house, and when she wouldn’t follow her mother home, her mother grabbed her by the arm and yanked her through the trees. She finally yanked back and shouted at her, not in words but in her old voice that expressed all she felt in one great vibration. Her mother spoke with a hand then. She slapped her hard across the face. – pg 25
This scene, of course, is a pretty big deal—a mini-climax of sorts—but the prose plods along as it does elsewhere—without much narrative voice or style behind it. The play on words here, too (“Her mother spoke with a hand then.”), is particularly unexciting.
Lastly, the story is in no hurry to get to the ending and a revelation that Mr. Clark has come for more reason than just to photograph nearby buildings. His own mother had been deaf (now we find out how he knows sign language), and his father didn’t treat her well because of it, and he’s come to repay what he owes her. When Janey finds her mother dead in her bed, the resulting question is whether Mr. Clark killed her. The whole scenario is as hackneyed as it is transparent.
- Subjective Score: 2/5
- Technical Score: 2/5
- POV: Third-person limited
- Main Character: Janey
- Secondary/Impact Character: Mr. Clark
- Tone: Subtle
- Setting: Depression-era South
- Main Conflict: Mother’s domination
- Main Dramatic Question: Will Janey free herself of her oppressive mother?
- Positive Takeaway: Sometimes what a character doesn’t say is more telling than what is said.
- Negative Takeaway: Trick endings are empty. Don’t kill off your antagonist unless you mean it.
Beginning: A mother and her deaf daughter welcome a photographer, named Mr. Clark, who is looking for a place to stay while he completes a WPA project.
Middle: Mr. Clarke asks Janey to help, which aggravates the mother and empowers Janey. They go to a black woman’s house.
End: Mr. Clark tells Janey’s mother what they did. She responds by secluding herself.