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Mondays are about Reading: Robert Olen Butler

Like I said in this blog’s 3rd anniversary post, Amlokiblogs will now follow a schedule, and as per schedule, Mondays are about Reading.

As I’m perpetually throat-deep in some book/s or the other, I thought it might be an idea talking about the stuff I read on my blog.

For the sheer beauty of prose, full marks to Robert Olen Butler in “They Whisper”, my current read.

I am at page 103 of 328, and though I haven’t fund much of a story yet, I haven’t found anything to complain about either. The writing is so rich, emotive: a precise, tasteful erotica with sentences like– “Did she know her bones were beautiful to me?”–scattered in between quite graphically described encounters. Butler takes erotica where it originates, in the play-field of the human mind. My previous experience of erotica was with Anais Nin, probably a decade ago, and Butler reminds me of her in parts.

The book is mostly in the voice of Ira, (or the voices of women as he hears them), a man who loves women, and who sees beauty in a woman not only as a whole but in each unlikely part, for instance, falling in love with the owner of a voice, a woman who reads Vietnamese in recorded lessons, a woman he never meets at all.

Some of Butler’s sentences are a paragraph long: “since I can’t win your past or even, to be honest, any certain future, since I can’t carry you off to a place where there is no memory, can you at least tell me I was all-alone-nobody-ever-like-me special in some way, no matter how small?”–but they capture a man’s voice so well, and make him so interesting that you’re a willing listener to his anecdotes, uncaring of whether his story sticks together as a whole.

This is a book to be savored in bits. I’m not wholly sure I will finish it at a go, because there is simply too much to be taken in. I am also afraid that the book might turn out to be repetitive and cloying. I hope not.

But for the moment, I’m enjoying Butler’s technique of being in the moment, of describing each sensory detail to the extreme, like he does here, in the voice of Ira’s wife, Fiona, (who has been abused as a child by her father, and has finally returned to church after turning away from it for the longest time):

“But I catch myself beginning to stare and my eyes drop once more to the priest’s hand rising from the ciborium and now the host is visible to me, as white as my skin, and I square around and lower my eyes and soon the priest is before me and he smells of Old Spice, I lift my face and look at my nose bulbous in the gold mirror of the ciborium and I am ugly there and I am sure the priest can see how ugly I am but still he says ‘The body of Christ’ and I whisper ‘Amen’ and I open my mouth and I bring my tongue forward: softly, softly, the air is cool on my tongue and I feel naked and I curl the tip of my tongue very slightly and his hand comes forward and the host touches me, and it is very light on my tongue and I can feel my blood speed up, pounding in my head so hard I am afraid I will faint, but I close my eyes and concentrate on the body of Christ in my mouth and it is as light as a soul and I close my mouth and hold Him inside me.”

What book is at your reading desk right now? Would you like to post a line you like from it in the comments? Why do you like that line?

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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