I just finished reading a fine novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron. I believe I heard about it on the New York Times Book Review podcast, which is a great way to get a feel for new books by listening to interviews with the authors or reviewers.
What’s most remarkable about Someday is the voice of the narrator, an 18-year-old New Yorker named James Dunfour Sveck who is headed, against his will, to Brown University. Not much happens by way of plot, and I won’t give away what there is by saying whether or not he succeeds in his plan to use the money his parents would pay to Brown to skip college and buy a home in the midwest. Here’s a taste of the voice, taken at random from the middle of the book, at page 134:
Since the gallery was closed on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer, my mother insisted on keeping it open on Mondays, because she thought galleries that were only open four days a week weren’t “serious.” On the Monday after her premature return from her honeymoon, both John and my mother had spent most of the day lurking in their offices behind closed doors. No one had set foot in the gallery, and at about two o’clock the sky went dark in a weird green swampy way that gave me a creepy end-of-the-world feeling. Suddenly it began to pour.
I like it when an author can lure me so intimately into the life of an unlikeable character that I end up caring a lot about that character. One blurber, Margot Livesey, put it nicely when she said, “As I drew near the end of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, I read more and more slowly because I didn’t want to leave James.” Another, James Howe, compared the novel favorably with The Catcher in the Rye, and I think the comparison is apt, because of the voice.
Voice gets a lot of play in another book I’m reading, The Cluetrain Manifesto, a sort of Bible to us social media and new marketing zealots. Number 3 of the 95 Cluetrain theses states, “Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.” Number 4 adds, “…the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.” And, having worked as a corporate “communications director” for a big company 12 years ago, I love this one: “In just a few more years, the current homogenized ‘voice’ of business–the sound of mission statements and brochures–will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.”
I love it when I come across a real human voice, whether in the pages of a book or in the 140 characters of a Tweet. It’s not easy to sound natural in writing. As a reader, I really appreciate it. As a writer, I just keep trying.