BOOK REVIEW / A man who loves too much: 'They Whisper' - Robert Olen Butler: Secker, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WHY DO I feel about so much contemporary American fiction that it isn't amazing it's done well, but that it's done at all? There is a collossal sense of superfluity hanging around They Whisper; a superfluity of commitment to 'fine' writing; a superfluity of being sensitive; a superfluity of what the author hopes is acutely drawn imagery.

Ira Holloway is a 35-year-old man who does something in public relations. He is married to Fiona, an arty redhead who has sought refuge in religious mania to cope with her childhood sexual abuse. The action of the novel is relayed by Ira as a monologue that shifts between his past and his encroaching present; between his childhood in the steel town of Wabash and his time as an army interpreter in Vietnam; between his passionate encounter with Fiona and the torment of their married life.

The novel's philosophical dynamo is this: that Ira is so goddamn sensitive that when he is perfectly attuned to the women he lusts after (or 'loves' as he would say), he can hear their innermost voices. These voices are the whisperers of the title, and what whispering it is] Ira eavesdrops on women 'fessing up to their 'roiling' emotions, the excruciating hurly-burly of Eros and Thanatos fighting it out inside their bosoms. Butler's publishers tout him as a male writer 'who is able to render female voices with astonishing insight and authority'. But what this comes down to in practice is a splicing together of Freudian psychopathology with corporeal titivation.

Ira's women speak of their vaginas, and of men's penises, at great length; they imagistically convey the braiding together in their natures of their drives towards sex, death and procreation. Ira's explanation for this astounding phenomenon is explicitly Bergsonian. Namely, that his language is one of sensual concepts rather than uttered signifiers. We are not to take him at his word, therefore, but to submerge ourselves in the delicious reel of his prosody. This begs the question of whether or not we are to give credence to Ira's whisperers. I would like to imagine that Butler intends a level of irony to all this, but I doubt that this is the case. There are precious few laughs in this book, and a novel without a joke in it is a bleak thing indeed. No, Butler isn't trying to satirise the male ego by showing up the paradoxes and self-seeking delusions that underpin it: he wants us to sympathise with Ira Holloway, to give way to our warm stream of feeling, and sort of merge with him. Perhaps that is why Butler's prose is so choked with images of flowing, coursing, dripping and splashing.

Ira wants to screw just about every woman he ever claps eyes on? That's fine. Ira wants to live in a sort of World of Vagina? That's fine too. In so far as Butler is attempting to say something about the parlous condition of heterosexuality at this condom-end of the millennium, what does he come up with? Only a tired inversion of the psychobabble that seems to be the blunt forensic tool of the age. An alternative title for this book could have been 'Men Who Love Too Much'.

Some of the writing is good. The early scenes from Ira and Fiona's marriage, where her sexual jealousy begins to flare into serious disturbance, are well drawn. But what is most striking about They Whisper is that for all its visceral description, it ends up being antiseptic. And on that basis, the fact that Butler can write well enough is not enough to explain why he bothers in the first place.

Butler uses Ira to describe women's bodies with as much intensity and graphicness - one feels - as he can manage. The vagina is pored over for page after page. Here it is in Vietnam, making the hero's face 'as wet as the afternoon rains'; there it is in New York, 'the viscous river of her'. But the inconsistencies in this vagocentricity point up Ira's bogusness. For, while he tells us that Vietnamese women's vaginas smelt of 'almost nothing', a Thai bar-girl's vagina he is giving a vigorous seeing-to has 'a warm, musky flow'. Such regional variation] And while Butler is not afraid of employing scatological terms in some contexts - the streets in They Whisper almost invariably smell of piss - in the ones where you would have thought they had most application, they are absent. If Butler had managed to invent women characters who smelt real, he might not have had to construct a male heterosexual character who, if not a conventional Wicked Willie, still does 99 per cent of his thinking with his penis.