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 Band-Aid 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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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 3, 2018 as "A. S. Patrić, The Butcherbird Stories".
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