Why is the second person such a natural and addictive tense–perhaps the only honest one–when writing about drug abuse and a foggy recovery?
For years, you haven’t been able to stop asking this question. Reading Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, you are asking it again, vocally (a real dinner-party silencer), by mistake or with motivations hidden from even yourself.
Around the time that the younger Bush is elected for a second term, across the Atlantic or across the Pacific, over the river and against the woods, Serpent’s Tail, one of the great, fierce and independent British publishing houses, has issued a new edition of Ron Butlin’s The Sound of My Voice, which first met readers in 1987. You are asked to review it for the Scottish magazine Chapman.
You have never enjoyed books about drinking, but this changes everything. You read it in one evening, sipping cheap but nonetheless single-malt scotch in your apartment near the Pubic Triangle, a convergence of roads more like a death star than a triangle, populated by a salsa club, strip joints, a chippie run by Italians, and a few dusty used book stores, where Arthur Conan Doyle could have researched his somewhat real cases, who knows, below the shadowed side of the Edinburgh Castle.
Then you read it again. Sharp, condensed, unrelenting, only occasionally overindulgent (Butlin wrote the novella about a friend, not about himself, which helps), it tells of Morris Magellan, a biscuit company executive in the new 1980s UK suburbia, drinking himself to the edge of death at a remarkable level of consumption on par with the death-drinking in Leaving Las Vegas, though Butlin’s style is consistently active, unlike John O’Brien’s passive and elegiac “There were tears,” “Three times they were lovers,” etc. “Everything that has ever happened to you is still happening,” writes Butlin. The “my voice” of the title addresses Magellan in the second person throughout. Oddly, it is its consistent harshness that renders it angelic.
You begin Ablutions, which came out last year, with a distracted heart, a The Sound of My Voice-hangover. Friends might recommend Bright Lights, Big City, but that particular second-person literary drug romp is too rushed, a Bloody Mary from a nitrate-heavy mix. Ablutions chooses simplicity. It sits in the bar and listens:
Discuss the regulars. They sit in a line like ugly, huddled birds, eyes wet with alcohol. They whisper into their cups and seem to be gloating about something–you will never know what.
Soon “you,” the protagonist–a budding alcoholic, a grandly unambitious bartender in a seedy Hollywood bar–and you, the reader, are stuck in this ugly-bird sanctuary. Eventually you together discover what the locals have been gloating about: “If I can fool this bartender, I’ll know that I’ve finally made it.” Soon it’s clear that the narrative voice is more death than novelist, and death appears to have a fantastic sense of humor but a rather prosaic imagination. “You try to cry all the way home but can manage only a coughing fit and a few moans…”
Gary Shteyngart likes deWitt’s “dirty realism.” About.com warns: “If you cannot handle crass stories of sex, drugs and violence, this is not the book for you.” Actually, if you cannot handle these things, you would be better advised to let deWitt fondle them for you. His wry tenderness, his ability to climb a ladder and look down on our little world without taking off his shoes of broken glass, this is Ablutions‘ unique delight. There is tenderness, but nothing particularly tender. Two acts through the four act novel, the lead character–”you,” always “you!”–finally leaves the fucking bar. Ablutions could have ended here, in desperation without redemption, though then it would have been good and not great. You imagine deWitt climbing above the bar into a soft fog. Suddenly the bar is empty. Time to put Warren Zevon on the jukebox, even if you are the only person singing along: “You know I hate it when you put your hand inside my head/ and switch all my priorities around.”
Kai Maristed‘s exquisite 1996 essay on quitting smoking, “Nicotine: An Autobiography,” refuses to choose between the first and second person, with the “you” statements referring to a harshness of mind and the “I” statements, more or less, taking hold of the body. “Hard-core porn is much easier to lay hands on than serious information on nicotine….You hate propaganda. You despise the self-appointed smoke militia,” she writes. “Would you suffer for any principle….Do you love those whom you say you love….Is there anyone who could know you?” These statements give way to admissions that “As a girl, I used to see myself mirrored in the magazine ads for Parliaments and Winstons–prophetically prettier, adept at tennis or sailing,” and (after quitting), “At home sometimes, in an apprehensive reflex, I still hold my breath and listen. But the frightening sounds are gone. My little boy’s chest is clear…” So the second person is a type of investigation that leaves something out, maybe the body, maybe listening. Yet in Maristed’s essay, even talk of choosing madness over suicide is couched in the empty comfort of “you.”
The Sound of My Voice presents alcoholism as breathing underwater, suburbia as a dried up ocean bed. The human body is strangely absent. There is no “fun” drinking in the book, but there are great expanses of imagination. Butlin narrates a world that is falling apart but never shatters completely. Magellan drinks like a fish but never sets foot in a bar. His seemingly ideal suburban life of middle class Thatcherite values and possessions (mirrored, in Ablutions, not in Reagan’s America but in post-Reagan America) is falling apart but will not go away.
This is the alcoholic strain. Magellan’s life is there all around him in a rising sea raised by relics of his eroding career and relationships, including memories of strained and abusive relationship with his father (“Had he glanced at you, smiled and replied to your greeting; had that commonplace event ever happened, even once, it would have been the miracle to change your life”), and a “functional” alcoholic’s heavy half-dreams. The use of the second person becomes a way to keep reality and dream life separate but equal. Speaking to this disorienting democracy is again the voice of death, a constant reminder that even before blood and alcohol were drawn together in religious rites, imbibing was a way to push consciousness toward its own disappearance, or at least a chance to pretend, for an evening, for an hour, that you are doing the pushing.