Chaos Walking #2: The Noise and the Word

Except for the Noise, an “illness” that strikes male Settlers of New World whose chief symptom is the broadcast of every thought and image in one’s mind to the world around you, Chaos Walking, in the words of Elizabeth Baird Hardy is just “Huck Finn on ‘The Planet of the Apes’.” It’s safe to say that, whatever Patrick Ness’ message may be in his dystopian trilogy cum coming of age story, it is wrapped up in the meaning of the Noise.

Today, consequently, after looking yesterday at the curious surface macro-structures of these books, I want to begin discussion of the work with some conversation starters about the Noise. Here is a brief look with more questions than answers at the narrative, moral, allegorical, and anagogical levels for your reflection and comment:

Narrative: The Differences in Response to the Noise

We have to note first that not everyone responds to the Noise in the same way. Among the Settlers, it was experienced as an affliction or disease without cure and various communities sprung up as the Settlers left Haven, each community defined in large part by how they dealt with the Noise and the fact that only men’s thoughts were broadcast. The immunity of women led to their deaths in Prentisstown, which seems to have been something of a cartoon “fundamentalist Christian” community populated with stick figures like the “mad priest” and “passive, unthinking believers” from the Hollywood back-lot. Farbranch took a radically different tack; they spread out to disperse the greater effects of the Noise when experienced in congested areas and their town was largely ruled by women like Hildy.

The abandoned burnt-out town Todd stumbles into seems to have tried radical segregation of the sexes, an experiment, judging from the fruits of the tree, failed as completely as did the Prentisstown gender-cleansing. Todd and Viola wind up in Carbonel Downs after escaping Aaron on the river, a town where the city fathers are in charge, with the women living apart, and where discordant loud music is played at great volume to act as a muffler on the Noise. Haven has had the most “success” as a community in dealing with the Noise in that they had discovered a pharmaceutical answer that, if taken daily, turned off the broadcasts.

There are three individual responses among the New World Settlers to the Noise that differ from these community adaptations. The most notable and remarkably effective response, of course, is the mind control “I am the Center” exercises of Mayor Prentiss. At least as interesting and ultimately more important life within the Noise is Wilf the wagon driver’s peace. The heart of the love story between Viola and Todd turns on their ability to “read” one another, with and without Noise.

And then there are the Spackle, the derogatory term of the colonists for The Land, New World’s native sentient beings. Their “response” to the Noise is like the human response to air. It is their natural means of communication, shared understanding, and knowing. The Noise to them, rather than being an “affliction” or a disease to be cured, is the fabric of reality of their planet, with which each individual is interwoven and of which the community is only the animate expression. They call the Settlers “The Clearing,” by which they mean that part of New World from which “The Land” has been “cleared” or stripped. The Settlers to them are also their relation to the planet, just as they are as The Land, but their place is defined by its disconnect from the fabric of reality.

Which brings us to the moral level of the books.

Moral: Natives Good, Settlers Bad, Religious and Scientific Settlers the Worst

The moral layer of any story is that the good guys embody the virtues we are meant to embrace and the bad guy those vices and ideas we are meant to reject. With important breaks from the mind-lock I don’t want to neglect, Patrick Ness’ books are largely postmodern pablum of politically correct truisms.

  • The religious folk are nutcases or good people destroyed by their trust in their nutcase leaders.
  • Women are abused and repressed by men — and more intelligent women resent and resist and rebel.
  • The native people have an intrinsic nobility and goodness their colonial masters cannot fathom so they demean and destroy them.
  • Speaking Truth to Power is what really good people do — because people in power are by definition ‘evil liars.’
  • You cannot know anything for sure, unstable and ill-formed as our thinking is, so sacrificial choices made in love are the self-actualizing means to knowledge and truth.

I don’t doubt you can tell I find this a little boring, even annoying, especiallly the “twisted preacher” in Knife. I also doubt native peoples would find the cartoonish ‘The Land’ and ‘The Burden’ anything but one more instance of artistic “slave owner’s guilt.” But Ness’ treatment of these tired anti-metanarrative metanarrative reinforcers, as I said, move well beyond the easy postmodern anti-chauvinist, anti-colonialist check-points. The conflict of Coyle and Prentiss, for example, is not “light” and “darkness” but a complementary pair of evils — chauvinist violence and feminist terrorism. And The Burden’s survivor, The Return, is simultaneously a blessing and a curse to The Land, as they are to her.

To get at this, though, I think involves moving on to the allegorical — and back into the Noise.

Allegorical:The Meaning of the Noise and the Various Responses to It

I think it’s no reach to assume that the Noise is a transparency through which we are meant to see several contemporary real-world referents.

The most obvious, to me, at least, is information overload and the saturation of our public space with over people’s ideas and thoughts — and the nearly unavoidable addition each of us makes to this competitive cacophony, very little of which is run through any kind of competent, critical filter. Social media, the never ending broadcast of teevee, and ubiquitous cell phone coverage means that broadcast media signals with data literally blanket our atmosphere and crowd our head space. New World isn’t a planet we have to travel to or struggle to imagine; it’s where we live.

Ness makes several twists to this to make the Noise more than the usual longing for a time before telegraphs.

There is the turn that only men seem to be affected by the planet this way. Everyone can hear the Noise and see the pictures but only men broadcast their every thought and mental image.

There is the peculiar fact that this is natural rather than a disease, as evident in the experience of The Land and The Sky.

And then there are the folks who work around the Noise. The Mayor, by meditative exercises, will, and perhaps a certain gift, masters the Noise. He turns it off, at first, then teaches others to do the same. Then, incredibly, he turns it into a means of communication, manipulation, and, ultimately, a weapon.

His technique and accomplishments, especially as we see them taken on by Todd Hewitt, however, make him less human. He is suppressing some aspect of his humanity, his ability to feel compassion and sympathy, even to love, with this effort. He masters the Noise and uses it, but because he does not understand its depth or nature, it eventually overcomes him or swallows him up (quite literally, given the manner of his death in the Kraken). In this, my first thought about the referents Ness is given us to think on through the Mayor-transparency is the media metanarrative we ingest, certainly, especially inasmuch as the great mass of people in his communities have their thinking and actions set by the Mayor’s direction.

More interesting, especially in light of the relationship between Mayor and Aaron, is that Mayor is ‘objective knowledge’ or science. He knows things and masters the Noise but he imagines that he exists part from it and, as its master is greater than it. Wilf to some degree but the risen Ben, the Chaos Walking androgyn, in spades each shows the nonsense of this. The Noise is greater than deductive thinking and anyone’s ability to transcend except by acceptance and something like communion.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about those communities and their different responses to Noise?

Prentisstown seems to be Mr. Ness’ caricature of the masculine response, namely, using the authority of tradition, revelation, and empiricist science to rid the world of its feminine aspects and character. All the women die here, if we’re not told if they are killed or if they committed suicide. Farbranch is a less severe version of Prentisstown; the women there, a la, Hildy, have pretty much taken the leadership role but the men here have accepted a passive acceptance of this. When Prentisstown invades, their men willingly join the murdering horde which suggests there was a problem in the emasculating response to chauvinism.

The burnt out town in which men and women lived separate, segregated existences? Perhaps Ness is pointing here to a past, well gone, in which there were distinct social spheres for men and women. Carbonel Downs, the village by the river where music is played to distract the male inhabitants from the Noise of their neighbors and where the women are out of sight, is a cartoon of our entertainment culture in which we drown out our own thinking with dissipating nonsense. Haven’s success with Big Pharma — and the ease with which the Mayor convinces the drug-dependent town to surrender — is Ness’ not very subtle indictment of psycho-active drugs as a replacement for human responsibility for and relationship with their Noise.

I want to jump into the gender transparencies here, too, but they’re only tangentially related to the Noise so more on that in coming posts.

Anagogical: The Noise and the Word

I think the bulk of Chaos Walking’s messages are in the allegorical transparencies but the solid foundation that makes the politically correct stuff endurable, I think, is the anagogical meaning. Mr. Ness’ sub-creation is a Christian world in which the Word or Logos is the fabric of reality — knowledge, thought, speech, The Noise are all aspects of the creative principle.

The Land is largely prisoner to Noise or collective incarnation of it; they are not individualized breaks in fabric as are The Clearing. Their lives, though, are simultaneously greater and lesser than their human Settler counter-parts. The Return’s agony is to straddle these worlds. His salvific capability, along with Ben/The Source, the Christ figure of the series, is a function of this resolution of contraries and rising from the dead/fall.

Most of Mr. Ness’ allegorical criticism of communities, science, religion, and individual types, in fact, I think are best understood in their inability to come to peace with their Noise, i.e., their relationship with the cause of existence, the faculty of soul in which the personal meets the universal.

The Clearing, as I noted above more than once, is the willful break in the Land and of this natural communion. New World settlers are driven mad by larger Mind and by exposure of their thoughts. The Mayor uses Word science to assert self within the power of hum; the Source and Todd retain their individual selves in love to Commune with that power, Ben through the Pathways, Todd through Love. If Knife, Act, and Monsters touch us finally it is this picture of possible choices about the Noise/Word that reach us.

Which invites this weird question that probably only HogPro All-Pros will understand and think funny: “Is Chaos Walking just another postmodern (post colonialist) Christian Logos epistemology divinization story?”

I think it is. I look forward to your comments and correction, as always.


  1. I don’t know if I see the Christianity in this series. Did I like it? Yes. But the attacks on religion bothered me, and when they weren’t attacks directly, there was at least an ambiguous dealing with religion. Are the things that happened in the church behind the waterfall (primitive like The Way: The church in Acts), the cathedral (over-the-top like in the medieval times), and the church (modern, for all I can tell) RUINS, all RUINS, were they good or bad? I sense much more of a New Age spiritualist reading: we are the earth and we are one, and if we can connect to our world’s powers, we can transcend the sin of humanity.

    But this post was about Noise, wasn’t it. I read the Noise similarly to you, especially on the moral and allegorical levels. I don’t think I ever directly thought Mayor = media, but I think that thought was suppressed somewhere in my own noise. I see the connection well: Denying the world the right to your personal thoughts, but dictating everyone else’s…

    P.S. Was The Return really female? I thought during the branding Todd at least thought the Return was male. Or was that just another one of the ambiguous gender role things?

  2. Good morning, Rochelle!

    Your points about the church in ruins will definitely be subject of our discussion — I have it slotted as #10 in the queue! It’s relevant to our understanding of the Noise, however, because I think, if Mr. Ness is a Christian or even just reflecting the natural theology of Coleridge from the tradition in which he writes, he is contrasting the living and real Word/Logos of God and human efforts to know Him and live consciously within Him with the dead and fatal (?) devotional life of religious belief. If true, that has qualities of a new age-naturalist critique of believers but would actually be a critique made from within the church’s traditional belief. Again, the fact that New World and The Noise has as its defining characteristic a common foundation of thought/word/speech/mind, a Logos ontology in effect, makes the story of Todd Hewitt’s becoming a man a Christian story, hard as that may be to believe given its almost cliched attacks on faith.

    When the Mayor, at the end of ‘Act, turns his Noise into a weapon of state to force the citizenry into submission, I thought Mr. Ness’ Noise=media point was made. This requires understanding “state” as meaning less “government” than “regime” or “power metanarrative.”

    We’ll have to discuss gender and sexuality in ‘Chaos Walking’ elsewhere, I think, but agree with you that the gender and sexual preferences of the two story androgyns, The Source and The Return, is intentionally ambiguous (with homosexuality implied as a suggestion of Rebus transcendence of polarity). 1017 is a girl. Again, for later discussion!

  3. Hello…
    I really thought this was a wonderful article, I’ve been dying to see some critical debate on for this trilogy and I’m looking foward to the next…

    I was a bit thrown by your saying that 1017 was a girl though, and I’m not sure what you meant. Is that your personal intepretation? Because in the book, he is referred to as a ‘he’ and also in a Patrick Ness interview I found on youtube, there is again a reference to the character as ‘he’. Or were you talking about the united nature of the Spackle as ‘The Land’ and the lack of obvious gender among them? Anyway, looking forward to the next discussion.


  4. I’m still with Josh about 1017 being male, and having a male partner. But I was wondering if the planned conversations (at least Nos. 4-10, since you said the church would be discussion 10) will still take place.

  5. “feminist terrorism.”

    Because that happens SO much.

  6. From “I’m thinking of adding an FAQ to my website, one of which will certainly be a very common question indeed: Is 1017 a boy or a girl? I know why you might ask, and the answer is he’s a boy. It’s a big world with all kinds of people in it, thank goodness.”

    From “no, 1017 is definitely a boy, though I can guess why you’re asking”

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