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.