“Once the Voyager was loaded with its telemetry modulation units and spectrometers and radioisotope thermoelectric generators,” writes Elena Passarello in Let Me Clear My Throat, “we then made the decision to affix human voices to the contraption’s flanks.” This image of singing voices rocketed beyond the edges of our solar system vivifies Passarello’s major concerns in her debut essay collection. Here, she examines the human voice, what it represents and communicates, and the global cultures and historical periods that have highly valued it. In these lively, memorable essays, Passarello describes the voice in different settings, explains what the voice communicates, and awakens her readers to the voices surrounding them.
The fourteen essays in Let Me Clear My Throat consider a wide array of subjects, including the Voyager space probes, castrati singers, crows, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra. Research melds with rich description, re-imagined historical events, and moments remembered from Passarello’s life. Passarello’s experience as an actress adds depth to the collection: she considers the human voice not only as intellectual curiosity, but also as something she has sought to master, something that has eluded her control. Additionally, as the first woman to win the annual New Orleans Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, Passarello has credentials as a practicing screamer.
Passarello’s research and experience benefit her writing, but the book also succeeds because of her accurate and lyrical descriptions. She explains Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign-trail vocal gaffe as “a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand.” She describes Brando’s “Stella” as close to the sound of a trombone “whose bell and slide had been run over by a streetcar.” And her portrayal of what the mouth does when pronouncing the words “rebel yell” marries well-chosen details with fresh writing:
When voiced, those consonants pool both air and tone in the front of the mouth. They are revved by the opening r, volleyed back by the b. The y boomerangs the last, perfect short e to the lips, and the low-growled double l coaxes it right back, cocking the mouth. The phrase has the same rhythm as themes from Mozart and the gallop of hoofbeats.
By yoking seemingly disparate topics within essays, Passarello achieves something new, opening up room for surprising connections. For instance, in “Please Hold,” a Jean Cocteau play comes together with computerized phone systems. Early in the essay, Passarello treats readers to a humorous transcription of herself pretending “to be a robot when I am on the phone with a robot that is pretending to be like me,” in which she writes: “‘OTHER SERVICES,’ I bellow, squishing the melody of my natural speech. ‘CAN-CEL. MY. OR-DER.’” Mere paragraphs later, she questions the psychological disturbance caused by regularly disconnecting our voices from our bodies via telephones and video cameras. This combination of levity and gravity adds emotional resonance to Passarello’s arguments.
Although Passarello’s humor enlivens these essays, she occasionally sacrifices precision to flashiness. Expressions such as “dictatorial hype-church surrounding Your Next President,” “a cocksure mezzo-forte,” and “They spent a year welding each note to the throat, and then they stuck it to the less touchable muscles” lack the clarity found elsewhere. Similarly, the collection’s final essay, a formal experiment presented as a questionnaire for a ventriloquist’s dummy, feels out of place among the otherwise straightforward offerings. Another distraction appears between the essays in the form of interview and transcript excerpts, which open with titles like “The Starlet,” “The Frontman,” “The Shape-Shifter.” While each piece adds a new perspective to the collection, the perspectives’ sources remain unclear: nothing introduces these excerpts in the text, and overly brief references in the bibliography do little to explain these voices’ provenance.
This final distraction, however, highlights one of the collection’s virtues. Passarello wastes no time explaining herself, choosing instead to focus her reader’s attention squarely on her chosen subject matter. She propels us into the sounds she considers. By moving rapidly between ideas, Passarello keeps the voice’s central importance in human life at the forefront. Moreover, although her glibness sometimes irritates, her fast-paced prose illuminates. “A space inside all of us waits for something that hurts so much that we require it,” Passarello writes. “For when breathing stops, neck whips, torso rockets, joints lock, heart swells, and voice screams.” In passages like this, she illustrates convincingly the primal importance of the voice and earns her claim on our attention.