September 30, 2007

Ron Butlin: The Sound of My Voice

Posted in Butlin Ron at 10:33 am by John Self

Ron Butlin! What kind of name is that? I had to check around before understanding that he wasn’t a fictional character himself, a Keith Talent-type wide boy in some broad satire that’s slipped out of print. But no: Butlin has a hi-de-high pedigree as a playwright, poet and opera librettist: and he’s written a few novels in his spare time too. The Sound of My Voice (1987) was his first.

It’s a stiletto of a novel, slim and piercing. Butlin gives us an intricate and intimate portrayal of Morris Magellan, a biscuit company executive whose life is not as clear and calm as it might seem. His risk is to do this in the second person, which makes the descriptions of Magellan’s life seem at the same time accusatory and excusing, and certainly stark (“You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed”). His problem?

Every day, every moment almost, you must begin the struggle over again – the struggle to be yourself. You keep trying, like an actor learning his lines, in the belief that eventually, if you work hard enough, you will play the part of ‘Morris Magellan’ convincingly. In time you hope to convince even yourself.

Butlin doesn’t mess about with the cause of Magellan’s instability that leaves him “trembling like a compass needle about to settle.” In the opening chapter we see Magellan’s father: a man who sits in his armchair while the young Morris is “terrified to enter the room he was in – and yet quite unable to go away;” a man who “any affection you showed, he withdrew from. Any love you expressed, he crushed utterly.”

And so Morris Magellan turns to alcohol – “for you, alcohol is not the problem – it’s the solution: dissolving all the separate parts into one. A universal solvent. An ocean.” He gatecrashes three parties a night; he drinks his way through lunchtime meetings; he is woken in the morning on the lawn by his young daughter (“Elise was staring down at you. Outdoors. In the daylight. In the garden. The sky above her”).

Butlin uses his poet’s skills of observation and concision in every line, from the conversations with his wife and children (or “the accusations”) which are more like shattered monologues, to a casual afternoon’s drink driving:

A brandy-coda and you’re ready for a walk to the car park. Goodbye to the open-plan, the lift, the potted plants and low tables. The plate-glass doors, a breath of fresh air, the car park, the sea-green car with its sticky lock. Unstick it. Unlocking the seat-cover smell, the heat smell. Opening the window and switching on. First time. Anchors aweigh and, smoothly, faultlessly, sliding out of port despite an awkward kerb-nudge. Steady as she goes. Saluting the harbour master, then bearing hard to starboard into the main lane of a three-lane stretch, watching the centre lane marker buoys, the lighthouse beacons, the badly parked rocks and reefbanks.

As well as the grisly, skinned-knuckle sensitivity of the Yatesian honesty of Magellan’s story, there’s an almost unbearable optimism at the start of each chapter, as he wakes happy and hopeful, lasting literally minutes before he feels “inside you … the mud rising.  You drink to keep it down, to stop from choking.  You drink to gain another breath…  Sometimes you wake already choking in mud.  But not always, not yet.”  And the ending, where the voice gains a new dimension, is desperately moving.

The Sound of My Voice is an extraordinary portrayal of a mind which – thankfully – mostly – is not like your own.  And despite the cover photo, Magellan never in the course of the book sets foot in a pub.  Cunning, these alcoholics.

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9 Comments »

  1. jem said,

    This sounds interesting. I dont think I’ve read anything in the second person before – its not commonly used is it – can you think of any others? as you say it feels a little like I’m being accused. I feel edgy enough in first person mode sometimes, but I might have to challenge myself with this perspective.

  2. John Self said,

    Well now, Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and Iain Banks’s Complicity spring to mind, but they’re certainly few and far between. I’m sure I can think of others given time – or someone else is welcome to post second-person narratives below…

  3. Stewart said,

    I would have said Complicity too, although if I remember correctly, only alternate chapters are in the second person. Florian Zeller’s Lovers Or Something Like It, for its last chapter, bizarrely switches to second person. Didn’t quite get that in what was otherwise a well observed account of a relationship, coming at it from both sides.

  4. jem said,

    Hmmm I’ve read Complicity – a fair while ago admittedly, but I didnt remember that.

    I think style choices are quite interesting – I like authors that try something new – stretching the form of the novel – but they can either succeed or fall very short. I remember thinking that the idea for 253 by Geoff Ryman sounded great, but didnt live up to my hopes. Any novels that play with style that you could recommend?

    I remember doing a class once on the different types of narrator – I most enjoyed writing from an omniscient perspective! Maybe I have a god complex! But whenever I read anything that tends that way it always sounds ridiculous.

  5. John Self said,

    I suppose it depends on whether you mean style (as in prose stylists, like Amis or Updike, who do a mean style but don’t really muck about with the form of the novel as such) or form. For some interesting examples of novels that do interesting things with the usual format – for example, chapters which can be read in random order, or a novel which consists only of first chapters – try this discussion.

  6. jem said,

    ‘Form’! Damn I knew there was a proper word for it, but couldnt get there at the time of my comment! But form is what I meant.

    Thanks for your handy link to your list. I’ve got Ella Minnow Pea on my shelf to read. And I’ve added a few of the others to various wishlists.

    Have you read Encyclopedia of Snow by Sarah Miano? I felt it worked fairly well.

    As for style – Amis and Updike are sadly absent from my reading so far – so many books, so little time.

  7. Scott Pack said,

    I like the idea of Ron Butlin but have yet to find myself enjoying his actual books sufficiently.

  8. Stewart said,

    I like the idea of Ron Butlin being an idea.

  9. Eisenhut said,

    i have a question tho… this new dimension which is revealed at the end of the novel and which suddenly appears as a new voice talking to the reader/ Morris… is this the sound of Morris as a non-alcoholic?


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