The Sound of My Voice
Work is the curse of the drinking classes Oscar Wilde may have said, but Morris Magallan in The Sound of My Voice isn't a man of the lower depths but of the higher echelons: he is an executive working for a biscuit company. He knows he is free as the tradesmen are not. He sees that "no one would give you a row or cut your pay for being an hour late, or for choosing to leave an hour early." He notes too that, "they had begun when you were still eating breakfast, and they'd still be hard at it long after you'd left for home. You earn over five times what they do, plus perks."
Morris has it good but the problem is he feels bad: he is thirty-four years of age and married with two kids but he also has a problem with drink that he can't control and that the use of voice reflects. This is that rare thing, a second-person novel, hardly unique (Tolstoy, Fuentes and Jay McInerney have all used it, and it can be found in In on a Winter's Night a Traveller and Complicity too). Yet it's still very rare and helps create in Ron Butlin's novel a dislocating sense that what is happening to our central character is happening to someone else. When a person is told they need to take responsibility for their life, it helps if the person told feels they have control of it to take that responsibility: that they still have enough of a sense of self to refer to themselves in the first person. Morris seems to have lived a charmed enough existence that hasn't been his own, and the further that dislocation becomes manifest the less charmed this life becomes. During this short novel that covers at most a matter of months of present time, Morris is unravelling quickly. He cuts himself badly after trying to break into his own drinks cabinet, touches up the secretary at work and vomits all over a carpet. He also holds meetings that waste people's time, and can hardly hold himself upright without a drink - and will end up horizontal with it.
Introducing the book fifteen years after its original, 1987 publication, Irvine Welsh reckoned: "there is no prospect of him [Morris] chilling out a little, taking it easy, finding his level, perhaps redefining his life values." Morris isn't a young man living in the fast lane looking to pull over and grow up. He is in an early mid-life crisis that can feel like a trap, as though he has found meaning to his life but that the life isn't quite his that the wife, kids and job belong to someone else and hence the second-person narration. Butlin reckoned even years after writing it he wasn't sure what the novel was about: "The Sound Of My Voice took several years to write and then rewrite. Only gradually did I begin to cotton on to what the novel was about. In fact, I'm not totally sure, even now." (Scotsman) While Welsh sees a book about Thatcherism, about how you can have it all if you conform, even if you're disintegrating inside, that might be too sociological a reading of the novel. Butlin's ambivalence towards its meaning captures better and paradoxically what the book is about.
It is perhaps a work that tries to understand the construction of personality as a social expectation to the detriment of an internal imperative; in other words, that it is all very well for Morris to build a life for himself but that isn't of much use if the foundations of his personality are so weak. It is why at the end of the opening paragraph, the narrator says "you are thirty-four years old; everything that has ever happened to you is still happening" as the book then tells us a little bit about Morris's childhood. This can seem that Butlin wants no more than to explain the problem away with a little bit of psychology. But as Milan Kundera so astutely notes in The Art of the Novel, psychology gets interesting when it serves the phenomenological: when it can help explain a person's worldview. Kundera is describing the character of Tereza in The Unbearable Lightness of Being and says: "Vertigo is the intoxication of the weak. Aware of his weakness, a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it. He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down." Kundera reckons vertigo is vital to understanding Tereza but it wouldn't be useful to understand himself, nor the interviewer, and thus it is important what one reveals about character in the context of the character's preoccupations. It is why we find out a lot about Tereza's childhood and nothing about the book's most central character Tomas's early years. "If I talk about the mother, then, it's not in order to set down data on Tereza, but because the mother is her main theme" (The Art of the Novel) and we might say the same of Morris. His father is his main theme and thus the book opens with Morris in his early twenties hearing of his father's death, and the reader informed about memories of his childhood and how his father figured in that youth. One evening he was cleaning his shoes and singing a pop song about love when his father comes in. "You have never forgotten the anger in his voice. 'What could you possibly know about love?' he shouted." He recalls too his father mocking his understanding of perspective, when the boy shows confusion over the size of things in the distance. He remembers that he spent his "entire childhood in the corridor, as it were, knowing full well that if you dared to enter the room and address him or touch the back of his hand...he would ignore you."
So there Morris is at 34: "Over the years you have become very skilful at sensing what is expected of you, irrespective of your own needs or wishes. You have never been accepted, nor have you ever tried to be; you have never loved, hated or been angry." Morris has known only "...the anxieties of performance..." and vital to this thespianism is giving the impression that he is a success. He is after all an executive married with two children who has a nice home, but if the boy is father to the man then that stability is always going to be fragile, especially if the gap between that boy and the man he has become continues and can only be closed by alcohol.
Thus we see how important Morris's childhood happens to be and why Butlin needs to attend to it without paying any attention to Mary, Morris's wife. If Mary might seem a flat character in this novel so rounded from Morris's perspective, this isn't Butlin ignoring the woman; it is that we will infer that wherever Mary's problems lie they rest elsewhere, on perhaps being the dutiful wife just as Morris had tried to be the dutiful son. But for Butlin to have attended to Mary's childhood, to offer a quantitively fair psychological novel would have ruined the emphasis: that The Sound of My Voice is already noisy enough with Morris and Morris's alter-ego as Butlin gives us a book in the tradition of Hogg and Stevenson, in the tradition of the Scottish doppelganger novel, without of course resorting to the supernatural. Like Tereza in Kundera's book, Morris is in dialogue with his childhood even if he doesn't want to listen and the booze is the headphones that muffle the sound. Butlin's achievement though is to balance the immediacy of Morris's subjective state with the world beyond that subjectivity which will be seeing increasingly outrageous and troublesome behaviour. He is just trying to get a drink, not especially breaking into his own drinks cabinet; he is feeling affectionate, not assaulting his secretary, he is only trying to explain himself, not rambling on other people's time as he undermines the very company he works for.
However, rather than offering two Morrises in a tale that could have turned fantastic, Butlin instead offers two voices: the first and second person. By the end of the book, they will start to cohere in what might pass for possible optimism even if it comes in yet another moment of oblivious external danger as Morris keeps chasing those demons. He has been driving at great speed with the impression his father is up ahead and only slows down when he looks like his dad has disappeared even as Mary has been gripping his arm screaming at him to stop. Tears are running down his face and when he finally brings the car to a halt he is weeping uncontrollably as we have the last line, the last paragraph, of the book: "Your tears and mine." Morris hasn't expelled his demons in the convoluted and unequivocally despairing style of The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde. Instead, he perhaps needs to do no more than to be able to speak of himself in the first person as a first stage of recuperation.
© Tony McKibbin