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The Voids by Ryan O’Connor: a compassionate, original novel

Book review: much of this reads like a surreal picaresque in a destitute part of Glasgow

The Voids
Author: Ryan O'Connor
ISBN-13: 9781913348434
Publisher: Scribe
Guideline Price: £14.99

“As to what is real and what is fiction in The Voids, at times I’m not entirely sure myself. Everything is real, and everything is fiction,” writes author Ryan O’Connor in a somewhat lofty piece included in the press material for his debut novel. It nevertheless acts as a guide for the reader as to what they’re getting into with this finely written, nightmarish account of one man’s attempt to obliterate himself and his surroundings through drink, drugs and storytelling.

O’Connor’s artistic statement also speaks to a wider literary culture and the inclination in recent years to publish books as autofiction, the hybrid genre blurring memoir and fiction that has been done so successfully by Deborah Levy, Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk, among others.

A sense of a journey, of change, or at least of an ending is often what writing like this hinges on. Two examples are Claire Vaye Watkins’s recent I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness, in which the narrator sifts through her family history while on a trip back to her childhood home in the Mojave desert; and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2020), about a young man’s difficult journey to adulthood after a brutal upbringing.

The Voids strays from this narrative path as O’Connor’s unnamed protagonist chooses to stay in the same place, namely grotty local The Satellite, where one mad night out bleeds into the next, over and over again. It is an interesting stylistic choice to take an endless session and call it a plot. Certain details change as the character encounters one broken person after the next, but the predicaments – how to score, where to party, when to stop (never), who to hurt (primarily oneself) – remain depressingly the same.

While this repetition oppresses the narrative in the last quarter, it is to O’Connor’s credit that much of the novel reads like a breezy, surreal picaresque, a series of vignettes featuring the downtrodden in a destitute part of Glasgow. Indeed, Down and Out in Glasgow could easily have worked as a title for the book.

Instead, O’Connor puts the milieu front and centre: the voids is a term for abandoned homes within a condemned tower block. Most of the residents have already moved on, but the protagonist, as we learn over the course of the book, has made a life’s work of not moving on, with his belief “that happiness was something only possible for other people, people who’d been raised differently from me”.

O’Connor received the Scottish Book Trust Next Chapter Award in 2018; later the same year he was highly commended in the Bridport Prize short story category. He lives in Glasgow with his partner and young son. With his bleak humour and spotlight on struggling Scottish communities, O’Connor has been compared to Douglas Stuart, author of the  Booker-winning Shuggie Bain. There are also flashes of Knut Hamsun’s modernist classic Hunger. The works are aligned by sensual prose, atmospheric depictions of seemingly soulless settings – “A high-rise is like two streets running parallel up into the sky” – and the increasing dislocation of the protagonist’s sense of self.

In The Voids, O’Connor creates a world ex nihilo, showcasing the lives of the forgotten. He writes cogently on poverty, social inequality, addiction. He can sum up a character in quick and arresting fashion: “I looked at him and saw a mugshot of Charles Manson. I saw disaster.” This is helpful as the book feels overly populous at times, like one too many new friends at an after party. A finer edit could have pruned the narrative, polished the gems. Sequences that blur into dreams towards the end lack the punch of earlier action, where the reader is placed in the middle of the mess: “There was a heavy presence of multiple bodies in the house, and yet a thick, uneasy quietness, as if everyone were sinking or being forcibly submerged.”

O’Connor writes with compassion and honesty about his characters, from drug dealers to prostitutes, lecherous drunks to addicts: “Everyone self-mythologises a little in life, addicts more than most, especially alcoholics.” Dialogue is bright, realistic, tinged with Glaswegian wit: “‘He’s dying.’ ‘Dying?’ ‘Aye, really dying.’ ‘Is there any other kind of dying?’’ Timeworn phrases take on new poignancy through persuasive characterisation. There is sadness in hearing the old line “One more drink and I’ll be fine,” and the classic depressive question, “And what was it all for?”

In The Voids, O'Connor asks other important questions of society and those 
in charge of it: "Why they would further disperse the already dispersed and dispossessed?" But the success of his novel is to look beyond the issues at hand, to wonder what becomes of those left behind: "All sorts of people are convinced – against all evidence to the contrary – that all sorts of utopias will come to pass."