Book Review: The Sound of My Voice

“There are two histories to your life: one that belongs to other people – this history has many variations – and another that is yours alone. Both of them are true: their contradictions must be maintained and resolved inside you every moment of your life. In effect, you carry the burden of two lives at least, and not only are you running out of energy to do this, but you realise you have lost sight of any purpose to this weary exercise.”

The Sound of My Voice, by Ron Butlin, tells the story of Morris Magellan, a well paid executive at a biscuit company, husband, father and chronic alcoholic. Narrated in the second person it takes the reader through a day to day life that is gradually spiraling out of control. Gaps are appearing in Morris’s memory. He suffers occasional hallucinations. Alcohol is not regarded as the problem, it is his solution.

Morris sits inside his comfortable office feeling that he is pushing through a rising tide of mud – around him and inside, trapping and choking. He drinks to keep the mud down thereby allowing him to breath. His colleagues may question his well being but his tasks and output continue to achieve what is needed. His wife, Mary, is aware of the drinking but is trying to be supportive despite appalling behaviour at home. Morris recognises that he once loved, and thought this could be enough. He now regards Mary as replaceable.

There are small successes to be enjoyed – a hand held by his daughter as they walk, a meal cooked for the family, a meeting at which Morris shines – but any euphoria does not last. Always the mud rises and the contents of a bottle will put things to rights. The missteps increase in frequency. When Morris acts out of turn he drinks to forget.

“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.”

The tension underlying the narrative leads the reader to a terrifying denouement. Morris is travelling towards self-destruction. The question is, who he will take along.

This novel was first published in 1987 when the model of success in Thatcher’s Britain included the trappings of Morris’s life. The book was well reviewed on release yet quickly disappeared. Perhaps readers were not ready for its somewhat stark depiction. A few years later Irvine Welsh came across a copy and described it as ‘one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s’. Endorsed by many respected writers, widely translated and award winning, it was included in the List‘s 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time. I readily join those early reviewers who credited it with the highest verbal accolades. In this its fifth regeneration I hope it finds the wider readership it deserves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Polygon.

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Book Review: Billionaires’ Banquet

Billionaires’ Banquet, by Ron Butlin, is a wry tale of a group of Edinburgh students living in Thatcher’s Britain. They are on the cusp of the rest of their lives, ready to move beyond their years of drink fuelled casual sex in the cold and cluttered bedrooms of cheap shared accommodation.

Hume holds a PhD in philosophy but has yet to secure a permanent job. Cat is awaiting the results of her Pure Mathematics Masters degree and is expecting to receive a First. St Francis dropped out of training for the priesthood so is signing on. These three share a tenement flat, four stories above street level and owned by Electric Boy who has his recording studio in the attic above.

On Midsummer’s Eve, 1985, a Spaghetti Banquet is in progress in their kitchen. Electric Boy has brought his girlfriend. Visiting the flat for the first time is DD, a music student invited by a friend who failed to show. All are looking to their dreamed of futures while carrying baggage from their pasts.

As the summer progresses into autumn Hume comes to realise that his life is not going to travel its expected path. Cat has disappeared and DD is growing impatient with Hume’s stasis. If he is to move beyond pot noodle dinners and avoid turning into one of the homeless beggars beginning to appear on the city streets then he needs to take responsibility, grasp the opportunities supposedly on offer, and secure a decent paying job. He comes up with an idea, at once brilliant and absurd. With a few convincing lies, some help from his friends and a great wodge of luck he pulls it off.

Fast forward twenty years and the group’s life has undergone radical change. Some of Hume’s business associates may be dodgy but he has reaped his rewards. He has also discovered that such success comes at a cost.

Whilst the Occupy movement demonstrates against capitalism and the western powers shout about fighting terrorism, Hume decides to cast off his shadier connections and raise money for a cause. He will host a Billionaires’ Banquet, a high profile showcase to establish his business in the more ethical space to which he aspires.

There is a dark humour to the writing as the characters attempt to navigate a world where success is measured in wealth yet is defined as hard work by those who look with disdain on the faceless workers who keep the cogs of their businesses turning. The climax is a brilliant satire that invoked shades of Ballard’s High Rise. The ways of the world are understood by those who have experienced its seedy underside rather than by the idealistic intellectuals.

Within the context of a spirited story the author brings into focus the cost of a nation’s greed. An evolving Edinburgh provides the perfect backdrop. This is a contemporary parable that insightfully entertains.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.