“You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed. When your friends and business colleagues meet you they shake your hand and say, ‘Hello, Morris.’ You reply, ‘Hello,’ usually smiling. At home your wife and children – your accusations, as you call them – love you and need you. You know all this, and know that it is not enough.
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.”
Drink, gambling, substance abuse, scratch cards… At what point does a controlled pleasure morph into addiction? What are the signs? Regardless of how that list enumerates, acknowledging a problem must be so much harder, whilst a façade of normalcy remains.
The Sound of My Voice tells the story of Morris Magellan, a fully-functioning alcoholic. From society’s high vantage point, he embodies the Protestant ethic: an educated professional, young and successful with a wife, two kids and a home in the suburbs, he is the promise that every politician wants you to believe in. And yet…
The story plays out over a short period whilst he teeters on the edge, struggling to maintain his façade – his wife, his daughter, his colleagues, even Morris himself knows he has a problem, but no-one dare say the words. His life therefore, and the story, consist of two tracks: Morris drinking, and Morris convincing himself and others that he is but a social drinker, a charmer, a bon viveur. Regardless of the storm raging inside, the show must go on. It is telling – and quite deliberate – that there is no confrontation with or even mention of alcoholism, within the story; no head-to-head or heart-to-heart, dramatic coming-clean or plea for help.
Through a second-person narrative, we follow Morris, live Morris: Morris walking with his young daughter to the shops and not drinking; Morris enjoying a Sunday with his family and still not drinking, until he finds himself sitting by the drinks cabinet, confused and bleeding heavily, because he has smashed through the glass pane with bare hands. And as he races towards his own ‘event horizon’, the painstakingly constructed façade to his life starts to slip: time jumps, leaving him with no recollection of recent events; apparitions visit him; paranoia sets in and he talks to himself. The disintegration of Morris is piecemeal, unrelenting and markedly un-dramatic – it does not follow ‘the rules’ that drama demands. It is an uncompromisingly honest portrayal, bereft of any ‘spectacular’, climax, mea culpa or tangible notes of redemption. The paying-punter has almost no positive to take home.
Across a Foreword by Irvine Welsh, (who had selected the novel as a ‘Lost Classic’ for New York’s Village Voice), and an Afterword by Butlin himself, there is fascinating exposition on the socio-political climate of the novel, and why it failed to make a mark on first being published in 1987 (it’s now on its fifth run). For Welsh, the novel is ‘…a polemic against Thatcherism and the consumer society.’ But I’m not so sure… Where Welsh’s fiction roams within a broad locus, with the culture and environment of his stories being consciously explored, (Choose life. Choose a job. …), the focus in The Sound of My Voice is singular; myopic, even. The unblinking eye on one man and his addiction is almost outside of time and space. But Welsh is clinical in dissecting why the novel was not earlier given its due credit: ‘…it’s decidedly not a feel-good novel. More importantly, it went (and goes) against the grain of the times in a quiet but ultimately implacable and uncompromising way.’ Put another way, by refusing to let in even a chink of light, the novel disobeyed ‘the rules’. And it paid the price.
Any Cop?: I really enjoyed Butlin’s Billionaires’ Banquet, but The Sound of My Voice is on completely different plain. The best fiction expresses its ideas ‘clean’ – unsullied by PR – and this novel is a perfect example. It’s pure – pure in its ugliness, pure in laying out the protagonist’s struggles and thoughts, and pure in his dismantling. A stunning piece of work.