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James Goodall
Features Writer
1:00 AM 24th June 2023
arts

'He Drove His Mind Into The Abyss Where Poetry Is Written’: Ryan O’connor’s the Voids

 
The Voids by Scottish newcomer Ryan O’Connor is a debut that puts your brain to work! The reading experience was akin to electroconvulsive therapy, exciting my grey matter like never before.

The story begins with a description of the titular ‘voids’ – a cluster of condemned high rises in a deprived area of Glasgow. Services have been withdrawn and the buildings are falling into disrepair. Some residents have been bought off; others have remained, either for sentimental reasons or due to problems with addiction.

...he spends his days like a lost soul, searching for meaning in a mausoleum, using drugs and alcohol to retreat from life...
The voids are negatively charged, the action taking place in and around them like a cursed compass point, bleeding bad karma. The surrounding catchment area is impoverished, businesses have ceased trading, and only third-rate amenities remain – a derelict shopping centre and a pub of ill repute, propped up by a forgotten underclass.

Residing in one of these infamous tower blocks is our unnamed narrator. Unable to move on, he spends his days like a lost soul, searching for meaning in a mausoleum, using drugs and alcohol to retreat from life: ‘Intoxication sheltered me from reality’. His self-destructive behaviour is triggered seemingly by a bad break-up, but there is more to his situation than meets the eye. Getting to know him, we soon learn, is a bit like peeling away the layers of a badly bruised onion.

At times, it felt like I was accompanying him on a booze cruise I didn’t want to be on, suffering his hangover symptoms vicariously.
The novel is essentially an account of the narrator’s downfall, charting his pilgrimage along a path of self-destruction. At times, there is almost a sense of religious piety about his approach to life, reminiscent of Gordon Comstock’s self-negating philosophy in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. He has his own truth, which makes sense to him if no-one else, as he expounds in one single golden line: ‘Normal is what we’re conditioned to accept, and we accept it so readily’.

He lives life like a rudderless ship, crashing constantly into icebergs along the way. He frequents pubs of ill repute, pops pills like Tic Tacs. At times, it felt like I was accompanying him on a booze cruise I didn’t want to be on, suffering his hangover symptoms vicariously. By the time I’d reached the halfway mark, I felt like I’d been on the longest acid trip of my life!

In the second half, he makes an enemy of a powerful drug dealer, suffers a car crash, and finds himself hospitalised on numerous occasions. Even during his downtime, he idles away his hours in the company of femmes fatale who seek only to use and abuse him before leaving him in the lurch to lick his wounds.

But no matter what predicament he finds himself in, he always manages to escape with an almost Buster Keaton-like grace.
As he reaches rock bottom, it becomes apparent that the voids have been a metaphor all along, for his deteriorating physical condition and state of mind. Both alike are empty, burnt-out, and ready to fall apart.

The Voids isn’t a dystopian fiction, but its world-building is very typical of one, rich in apocalyptic imagery: ‘The pavements here were lubricated with blood and booze’. But more broadly, the decaying outer world is a projection of the protagonist’s inner turmoil. Counterpoising these hellish images are gorgeous descriptions of skies and vignettes of heavenly beauty, and he frequently looks to his firmament as a means of mental escape. However fleeting, these celestial sojourns at least grant him a temporary release from his unholy trappings on terra firma.

At times, the book reads like a protracted suicide note. But for the most part, The Voids is a gut-wrenching medley of belly laughs. Yes, our protagonist tends to view his world through hemlock-tinted spectacles, but there is a certain comedic charm to his capers: the way he will attempt a profound statement, only to follow it up with an unintended pratfall; the way he defends a woman’s honour in a mistaken act of chivalry, only to get unceremoniously beaten up. He has literary pretensions, too, and justifies his behaviour as part of an artistic struggle, despite evidencing his portfolio in no way whatsoever. As one supporting character observes - ‘it sounds like it’s all suffering and no writing to me’. But no matter what predicament he finds himself in, he always manages to escape with an almost Buster Keaton-like grace. Indeed, The Voids features many such comic flourishes and at times you can’t help but take your hat off to him.

The Voids also features some of the most poetic descriptions of dipsomania ever – ‘The wine exploded in my stomach like a tiny atom bomb that sent a million burning stars exiting through the pores of my skin’ – whilst at the same time never glamourising his behaviour. But then again, no-one in their right mind would ever treat The Voids as a self-help guide!

And though we may laugh at him at first, his drunken escapades and the dark humour of his day-to-day routine, page by page we’re drip-fed details of his troubled past. By the time we have a full damage report, The Voids takes on a more sombre tone, and our hearts go out to him.

Despite the catalogue of personal tragedies we’re made party to, never at any point did I feel that the negative ante had been upped too far. I remained hooked throughout, largely because the narrator never resorts to self-pity. He picks himself up repeatedly, keeps finding hidden stores of strength and manages to keep going. I admired his drive and perseverance, and never once implored him to get a grip. I just wanted him to find happiness.

Ultimately, we are left wondering...
But whether or not he does is uncertain. Unable to resolve his grief or find alternate meaning in his life (even his father’s death fails to grant him the closure he desires), he continually resorts to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, filling his days with false significance.

He constantly occupies liminal spaces, travelling but never arriving, searching but never finding, frequenting hospital waiting areas where he has no business being, boarding buses but never disembarking. Nor is there a consistent supporting cast, for he burns through friends and acquaintances like a blowtorch, his only fixed companion being the void where he lives, his one constant throughout.

This sense of detachment endures to the novel’s finale, leaving us with an ambiguous cliffhanger. On demolition day, he is high in the clouds once more, basking in their heavenly light. But it’s unclear whether he’s viewing them from an aeroplane window or the roof of his high rise. Ultimately, we are left wondering: did he ever reach his destination, or did he go down with his ship?

The Voids is published by Scribe.