Ron Butlin seems to be one of Scottish writing’s best kept secrets and I don’t quite know why. Scotland is lucky to have the writers we do, and Butlin can show his medals with the best of them. He is perhaps best known as a poet, he is Edinburgh’s Makar after all, but even in this field his fame falls behind that of Morgan, Lochhead, Kay and Patterson. How he should be best known is as the writer of ‘The Sound of My Voice’, for which he should be carried shoulder high. When people ask me to recommend a Scottish novel to them this is inevitably the one that I suggest. It is still ‘The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (probably) Never Heard Of’.
The quality of writing is evident from the first page. The novel is written in second-person narrative throughout, what must have been a mentally exhaustive undertaking, and the result of this decision is that the reader is disorientated, encountering a novel that is written in a manner that is not only unusual but, importantly, is uncomfortable. It allows self delusion in the narrator, and promotes confusion in the reader. There is no better way to explain what I mean than to give you an example, so here are the opening lines:
“You were at a party when your father died – and immediately you were told a miracle happened. A real miracle. It didn’t last, of course, but was convincing enough for a few moments. Then, an hour later, you took a girl home and forced her to make love. You held onto her as she cried and pleaded with you: even now her tears are still the nearest you have come to feeling grief at your father’s death. You are thirty-four years old; everything that is happening to you is still happening”.
At first the reader is made to feel for this man who has had a traumatic, life-changing, experience. This is someone who is feeling lost and confused, and has to be told what has happened to him. Then, as the picture of what is being described becomes clear, sympathy starts to disappear. It takes a couple of readings to realise that the above is the opening paragraph of a book in which the main character is describing how he raped a girl, there is no ambivalence about any acquiescence on her part (and in the next chapter this scene is described in terrible detail) and yet the only feelings of sympathy from the narrator are being directed towards the rapist. It is an understatement to call this a brave opening to a novel.
Butlin uses the narrator’s voice to report on the feelings and actions of his central character Morris Magellan, the chronic alcoholic whose story this is, and this gives distance from his life and how others may view it. It allows readers to have a rational, sensible voice to lead them through this story, but also a deceptively biased one. We are inside the main character, but distanced from him, as Magellan’s narrative voice is separate not only from the reader, but apparently from himself. It also allows Butlin to portray what is happening in a calm and reflective way, disguising, at least at first, the chaos that is caused as Magellan’s drinking spirals out of control.
Butlin beautifully conveys the hold that drink has over Magellan, describing the need for alcohol as a life or death situation: “for you, alcohol is not the problem – it’s the solution: dissolving all the separate parts into one. A universal solvent. An ocean.” It is difficult to write sympathetically about addiction, or to explain clearly what it feels like to be addicted. Butlin manages both; but it is interesting and necessary for the reader to step back and attempt to have a clear picture of what is happening on the page. There is a crucial episode where Magellan has to rush from his wife and children, smash open his drinks cabinet, as there is no time to search for the key (and as we later discover, badly cutting himself in the process), and then drink neat gin as if it was water and he had just crossed a desert. There is no thought for what his watching wife and children (who he call ‘The Accusations’) will think. We are dealing with a man whose addiction has destroyed his pride and the strength to continue any deception, all that matters to him at that point is drink, but the text itself appears to tell a different, more sympathetic, story.
I thought of appropriate songs that would not only reflect ‘The Sound of My Voice’, but that I actually listen to. There are plenty that deal with drinking, but few share the tone of the novel as well as this song from Arab Strap. Here’s the video for Here We Go:
It is difficult for me to imagine that a writer could create a central character that was completely abhorrent to them. There would have to be some aspects that were of the writer themselves. Could a main character be successful if they did not have the sympathy, at least in some way, of the writer? Even the most famous monsters in literature, such as Dracula, or a morally ambivalent ‘anti-hero’ such as Joe in Alexander Trocchi’s ‘Young Adam’, still have qualities in them which, if they don’t endear themselves to the majority of readers, clearly do to the author. Of course there will be writers who may seem monstrous to others, but they will not see themselves in this way, at least not wholly so.
This creates a problem for Butlin as his main character, at least for the majority of the book, acts, especially towards those who love him, in a despicable and cruel manner. Butlin uses the second person narrative to make Magellan’s actions seem, if not reasonable, then perhaps understandable, in a way that would not have been possible if the novel were written in first-or third-person narrative. First person would leave the reader appalled at the actions of Magellan; it would be too graphic. Similarly it is hard to imagine telling Magellan’s story in third person and it having anything like the impact that Butlin creates.
The ‘Sound of My Voice’ is all about a man’s ability to survive, even when faced with the greatest obstacles. It may seem as you read the book that this is a thoroughly depressing story, but stick with it. There are some lovely, magical, scenes, and the pay off justifies the journey as it is based around the feeling that where there is hope, even if it is the hope of others, there is a chance of a better life. But ultimately the hope of others is not enough; change has to come from ‘You’.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next month’s novel: Duncan McLean’s ‘Bunker Man’. To say this novel will not be for everybody is my understatement of the year. And it’s only February. Not much shocks me anymore, but there are scenes of graphic sex and violence in the book which are genuinely disturbing, as McLean means them to be. They are not meant to be titillating. What we witness is the slow unravelling of Rob Catto; it is his increasingly violent reaction to those closest to him that is under examination, and McLean goes to such lengths for that reason.
People have compared the book to Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner, but where later Welsh in particular shocked for shocks sake, I don’t think this is the case with ‘Bunker Man’. However, there are plenty of people who disagree with me, and strongly so. If you decide to go for it I’d be fascinated to know what you think.
Next 5 books:
- Duncan Mclean Bunker Man (Mar)
- Kevin MacNeil The Stornoway Way (Apr)
- Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
- Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)
- Doug Johnstone The Ossians (Jul)
Congratulations to the winners of last month’s competition. They were Colin Reid and Roz Davies who correctly stated that Stornoway is a burgh on the Isle of Lewis. You’ll be receiving your signed copy of Kevin McNeil’s debut novel ‘The Stornoway Way’ as soon as possible. Thanks to all who entered and keep a look out for future competitions.