Back in 2011 I wrote a post for the much missed Dear Scotland website on Ron Butlin’s 1987 novel The Sound Of My Voice as part of the monthly Indelible Ink column. In it I made the claim that it was “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”. A new edition is being published by Polygon, and I thought this was the perfect time to revisit it to see if that assertion still stood strong.
I should lay my cards on the table before we start. The Sound Of My Voice is one of those cultural touchstones which have become part of my identity. As with the music of The Blue Nile, the writing of James Kelman, the films of Bill Forsyth, and everything that John Byrne has ever done, it is something I evangelise about, attempting conversions whenever possible. These are important relationships and returning to them after time away brings the possibility of disappointment and disillusion if you find they no longer affect you as they once did. It’s a risky business.
Widely ignored on its original publication, The Sound Of My Voice began to gain cult status in no small part to its championing by Irvine Welsh in an article called ‘Great Scot’ for New York’s Village Voice Magazine’s Literary Supplement,which is reprinted in this edition as the ‘Foreward’. Welsh finishes the piece by saying, “I anticipate that The Sound Of My Voice will receive the recognition it deserves as a major novel of its time and type.” It would be heartening to think that Welsh’s prediction will come to pass, but I think there is still some way to go.
What is it that makes those who love The Sound Of My Voice, love it so much? – (And it’s not just Irvine and I, other cheerleaders include fellow writers Ian Rankin and James Robertson, and it featured on The List’s list of 100 Best Scottish Books Of All Time in 2005) – It is such a complex and rich novel that I think there are as many answers to that question as there are readers.
In ‘Great Scot’ Welsh picks up on a social and political commentary, which he reads as a damning indictment of Thatcherism and the empty promise of consumerism and the capitalist system, something which Butlin says, in his ‘Afterword’, “..had never occurred to me, but I saw made complete sense”. This uncovering of different layers is testament to the novel’s richness but also relatability.
Having a second-person narrative gives the reader a ‘point-of-view’ which puts them directly in the narrator Morris Magellan’s mind allowing for multiple readings. Everyone will find something which will speak directly to them and what it means to you will depend on time, place, personal experience, beleifs, and everything else you bring to the transaction. Politics on your mind? Social commentary? There’s plenty of both to ruminate on as well as the nature of addiction, individual responsibility, morality, reason vs passion – all of these are addressed, and a whole lot more.
Time and place were no doubt reasons that the role of women in the book was more to the fore for me this time around. Magellan’s horrific treatment of Sandra, the young woman he molests on the night he hears about his father’s death, remains one of the most arresting and shocking openings of any novel, but the importance of his mother’s death when Magellan is young, and which affects all his future relationships, and his wife Mary, whose forgiveness, love and pity destroys Magellan as much as the drink does, or so he believes, both took on greater significance. Then there is his behaviour towards Katherine and Carol, two women who work in his office. Magellan makes obvious and awful attempts to seduce them, taking advantage of his seniority, escalating from inappropriate banter to assault, and which he once again manages to justify to himself.
There are strong parallels with existential writers, such as Camus, Trocchi, and Kelman, but also Kafka, which emerge. On previous readings I thought of Magellan’s unravelling as primarily a result of his alcoholism, but now I can see that his underlying mental state is caused by his life as a whole, the “roles” he plays as son, husband, father, manager/boss, etc, and the expectations associated. He believes that if he plays these convincingly enough then no-one will discover that his true identity is defined by fear, anxiety, self-loathing, self-delusion and “..the fear of immortality in the pause between drinks”.
The Sound Of My Voice is as astonishing an undertaking to me today as it was when I first read it in the late ’90s. It is artistic, insightful, philosophical, psychological, even spiritual, and I could go on and on. But, above all, it is human and it is compassionate. At its core is a kindness and an attempt at understanding the worst of times with the belief that only then can we appreciate the best of times. Few writers have the ability, and, indeed, the desire to examine and understand what it means to do more than simply exist as Ron Butlin does, and this is evident in his poetry and other writing, particularly 2014’s novel Ghost Moon.
The Sound Of My Voice remains “The Greatest Scottish Novel You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”, but now you have and I hope I have convinced you that it is essential reading. Returning to it after seven years only confirms my feelings that, after all the Scottish novels I’ve reviewed on these pages and elsewhere, if I had only one to recommend to you The Sound Of My Voice is it.
We recorded a SWH! podcast with Ron Butlin in 2014 where he spoke about The Sound Of My Voice, and much, much more:
Here’s a trailer for the latest edition:
And a fabulous Spotify playlist of all the music featured in the book: