A.S. Pa­trić The Butcher­bird Sto­ries

Tran­sit Lounge, 256pp, $29.99

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

A.S. Pa­trić’s The Butcher­bird Sto­ries aims to un­set­tle. Each story plunges the reader into a unique sce­nario, en­hanced by the au­thor’s pen­chant for be­gin­ning in me­dias res. Fur­ther dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing the reader, the sto­ries of­ten ex­per­i­ment with voice, mi­lieu and struc­ture. How­ever, the work may be the­mat­i­cally or­gan­ised by an in­ter­est in mas­cu­line vi­o­lence, and in lim­i­nal states that hover some­where be­tween the ra­tio­nal and ir­ra­tional.

In terms of vi­o­lence, there are plot-driven and sus­pense­ful sto­ries about as­sas­sins and hired thugs, such as “Dead Sun” and “Among the Ru­ins”, which rely on the pop­u­lar glam­our of crime and sur­prise end­ings. These are class­ily done. Pa­trić tries to counter these dark ro­mances of mas­culin­ity with a story about a fe­male vic­tim, “Mem­o­ries of Jane Doe”.

In it, a chef who be­comes ob­sessed with and fi­nally mur­ders a free-spir­ited young wait­ress. Em­ploy­ing shift­ing points of view, this story ex­plores the per­spec­tive of the mur­derer and the anony­mous vic­tim. It also rep­re­sents the view­point of the fe­male restau­ra­teur who em­ploys both the mur­derer and the vic­tim, and who en­gages in ugly vic­tim-blam­ing when she reads about her wait­ress’s mur­der in the news­pa­per. Soon af­ter, she ends up dead in a graph­i­cally de­scribed car ac­ci­dent. There are too many fe­male corpses for this story to suc­ceed as a fem­i­nist corrective to fan­tasies of male vi­o­lence.

An­other story that aroused dis­com­fort was “The Ben­gal Mon­key”, in which a woman’s ex threat­ens to ex­pose her porno­graphic por­trait at the woman’s en­gage­ment party. The woman keeps the por­trait hid­den in her closet, sug­gest­ing it reveals some ugly truth about her­self in ways rem­i­nis­cent of The Pic­ture of Do­rian Gray.

How­ever, Pa­trić’s dis­tinc­tive strength is his evo­ca­tion of lim­i­nal states that chal­lenge our hold on re­al­ity. In “The Avul­sion”, a swim­mer no­tices an ob­ject on the bot­tom of the pool, which he first thinks is a BandAid but which he comes to re­alise is a thumb. He con­tin­ues do­ing laps, de­spite feel­ing pro­foundly un­set­tled. In “The Butcher­bird”, a de­fa­mil­iarised state is achieved partly through lan­guage. A man and his daugh­ter walk through heat, with the fa­ther won­der­ing: “How to ex­plain the fe­roc­ity above and the way it kills shade ev­ery­where ex­cept di­rectly be­low their feet?”

An­other plea­sure that Pa­trić’s work of­fers to Mel­bourne read­ers is a vi­sion of their own city, al­beit of­ten through a glass, darkly. KN

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