“You are thirty-four years old and already two-thirds destroyed.” This is not just the measuring rod of today’s alcohol consumption, but the yardstick of your life.
Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice (Canongate, 1987) is another text in my self-study plan for second person point of view. In this short novel, the “you” is protagonist Morris Magellan, an alcoholic whose life is unraveling, perhaps irreparably.
Following the death of his cold and distant father, Magellan dogpaddles through life as disappointing husband, father of two “accusations,” and junior executive at a biscuit company.
Drinks connect the moments of each day, accompanied by a background of classical music played too loudly. While numbly trying to hold it together, Magellan manages to alienate his co-dependent wife, frighten the children, offend his secretary, and jeopardize his position. Without the drink, he’s drowning in mud or hallucinating about snow.
Butlin’s choice of second person POV is perfect for the task, making you (the reader, that is) feel nervous, guilty, and detached all at once, as if you’re watching through a hidden camera lodged in the bridge of Magellan’s smeary eyeglasses the embarrassing minute-by-minute footage of someone too drunk to realize he’s failing at every turn.
Although The Sound of My Voice is not as excruciating as Grimsley’s Winter Birds, Butlin’s short book is self-conscious and uncomfortable, tense and poignant, with anguish made more powerful by his keen skill of understatement. Butlin delivers meaning and emotion in his spare prose like a lorry filled completely with the perfect number of biscuit boxes; no more will fit, and nothing jostles. This book is nigh perfect in its execution, and makes a lot more sense than Daniel Gunn’s over-literary Almost You (1994).
I recommend Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice. It’s a fine study in narrative and an example of a well-executed novel.
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You are Danny, one of five children born to poor Southern parents in the late 1950s. You move from one ramshackle house to another, most in ill repair and without adequate heat. When your Papa loses his arm in a farming accident, hard times grow harder.
Your saintly Mama puts up with a lot of abuse from Papa, whose moods swing deeper and darker and dangerously more violent with every imagined offense. You young’uns do your best to steer clear of trouble.
How do you feel reading the previous two paragraphs?
Jim Grimsley’s Winter Birds (Simon & Schuster, 1984) is part of my self-study plan for second person point of view. The initial effect of second person is an unsettled feeling, then a distancing: “That’s not me—I’m not ‘you.’”
But the more you read of it, the more it draws you in, creating identification with the narrator/protagonist. Ultimately, it forces you to participate in the story events against your will—probably one reason why Grimsley chose this POV.
Being held in an uncomfortable POV underscores the plight of an impoverished mother and five children trapped in a house with nowhere to escape abuse. All you have are your thoughts and each other, waiting for Papa to come home.
Grimsley ratchets up the tension with the dangers that Danny’s hemophilia pose: a misstep on a glass shard or Papa’s drunken backhand could mean a week in the hospital until the bleeding stops. Like Danny, as a reader, you continue to bleed until the final page.
Winter Birds is one of the most beautiful and excruciating stories I’ve ever read. At times it’s so intense that I had to put it down, and I’m no literary sissy.
Turning away is the prerogative of the reader; never the writer. Grimsley doesn’t flinch. American publishers rejected this semi-autobiographical work for a decade because it was “too dark.” When the book was finally published in English, it won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters as well as being cited for a PEN/Hemingway Award. Well deserved.
The narration, the dialog, the POV, the description all blend into a cohesive package that delivers a poignant, dark dream of childhood. Occasionally, second person comes off as incredulous when the narrator describes things he couldn’t be privy to. But the floating, fantastical elements interspersed through a child’s imagination allow you to accept the tale as told.
If you’re studying narrative or second person POV, you must read Winter Birds. If you read it for any reason at all, I daresay you’ll be moved.
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