The Smoky Silence of Mary Karr and Cindy Sherman

When a character in a narrative behaves erratically, her actions create a gulf of absence, even if she appears for breakfast every morning. A subject in a painting who looks away from the viewer amplifies the distance, whether she stands right in front of you or you watch her from afar. The void in these situations sets up a rewarding tension. Absence is a form of mystery, and in spite of ourselves—in spite of the danger—we want to peer into the abyss and find out what lurks there.

By carefully choosing scenes and dialogue, writers give dimension to characters and give readers a vivid sense of encountering definite, real people. In this way Mary Karr renders a portrait of her mother in her memoir The Liar’s Club that is vibrant and specific. But because her mother has a habit of disappearing physically and emotionally—withdrawing into herself, choosing not to speak, and succumbing to drink as an escape—the reader is left feeling the character is only partially present. The mother is as impenetrable to the reader as she was to the narrator.

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Stephanie Barton lives with her husband and dog in Albuquerque, where she works as a freelance editor. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Louisville Review, Under the Gum Tree, and the anthology Get Satisfied: How 20 People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. She has also written articles ForbesTraveler. com and Barton is completing a memoir about family racial tension, hoarding, and learning to love by leaving home.

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