Butades by T.P. Sweeney (Titus Books, Pokeno, 2016), 234 pp., $30
‘I live in a small town with frequent murders’ – now that is an opening line which establishes tone, content and style in one terse sentence. Butades (accent on second syllable) is a murder mystery that reads like Kafka in New Mexico. Its crisp sentences, clipped dialogue and laconic humour unwind remorselessly towards something only darkly felt and dimly apprehended. Sudden reversals in plot are at a minimum; the identity of the murderer remains unknown to the very end. But if the conventions of the ‘whodunnit’ are exploited only to be frustrated, then what kind of murder mystery is this? The author has stated that he ‘wanted a fairly standard first line that would evoke a recognisable genre’ so that he could ‘fill the contours’ of that genre with ‘unexpected content’. Who is this author and what is that ‘unexpected content’?
Publisher Brett Cross spent five years trying to acquire the manuscript of this novel, which lay in the bottom drawer of the author’s desk for 12 years. Eventually Cross met him by chance at an art exhibition and managed to persuade him to ‘surrender’ the manuscript for appraisal. He agreed to its publication, provided that he remained anonymous. T.P. Sweeney is the pseudonym of an Irish writer who was born in Belfast and grew up there during the period of the Troubles; he now lives in Auckland. His fascination with film noir and its focus on moral uncertainty and narrative ambiguity is apparent. The combination of action and setting – serial murders in a small southern US town on the edge of the desert – will probably recall David Lynch for some readers; the novel trades in the same characteristic miscellany of parody, horror, the grotesque, and that something else indefinable.
Butades is an artist and refugee from ‘the European War’ (the occupation of Greece in World War Two, perhaps, or the civil war that followed it), who is helping the police by tracing outlines in paint or chalk around the bodies of the killer’s victims. She then photographs the outlines and draws them on paper with a stick of charcoal. The photos she stores in a drawer, the drawings she mounts on a wall of the house she rents on the outskirts of town, gradually assembling a collection that intrigues the forensic psychiatrist, McGruder. Butades, we learn later, was once the lover of a fellow artist whose image she painted in outline on the ‘dingy ivory sheet’ of their lovemaking shortly before he left for an unexplained death in the war. She is not Butades for nothing, as she admits herself – her name, which is both her nickname and a pseudonym, is derived from a Butades of Sicyon (c. 600 BC), whose daughter fell in love with a young man, and who then drew in outline the shadow of his head on a wall of their house before he left to go to war. The story is found in Pliny’s Natural History where it is designed to illustrate the origins of art. This novel, in which drawing and writing are often represented in reciprocal terms, seems to be designed to illustrate (among other things) the impulse to leave a mark or at least a trace on the world before one dies.
‘The unshaded outline drawing, delicately pitched between presence and absence …’ This sentence, Butades’ summary description of her ancient predecessor’s artwork, could double as one of the novel’s most important thematic statements. Tracing a line with eye or mind is her characteristic activity. Her first drawing ‘set the pattern’, and thereafter she looks for patterns in everything from the killer’s motives to the movements of ants on the edge of her porch. But if the killer’s patterns prove as elusive as the ants’, that hand of hers cannot resist performing the function for which it was designed as both writer and artist. For Butades is the writer-persona of this book; its fifty-one chapters consist of her correspondence over a period of as many weeks. Writing speaks to her ‘of the whiteness of the page, of the pencil point’s “insulting” touch’; foreground and background open a ‘virtual space, a placeless space of composition’. Roland Barthes in A Very Fine Gift uses similar terms to describe writing as
constructing a space that is quite simply the space of art … in writing, my body thrills to tracing something out, to rhythmically incising a blank surface (blankness offering infinite possibility) …
This is Butades precisely, hunched and animated over a blank sheet of paper which she is ‘incising’ with her pencils and her charcoal, though in her case the action is more aggressive: ‘insulting’, almost ‘assaulting’.
Tracing outlines and finding patterns become increasingly important to her as the narrative progresses, but the second murder is so bloody that she has to use coins to ‘chalk up’ an outline. The fourth body is discovered in a water tank. ‘A body in water, in air. How do you draw that?’ asks McGruder, intruding on her own question. And at the third murder, our heroine parodies the task imposed on her by running an outline around the base of the trashcan in which the body of a baby was found. She is soon tracing the can from memory ‘in all exactness’, working at several versions, describing what she calls ‘tracking space in search of closure’ in terms of physical sensations (‘I felt it in the whole of my body, a sense of something leaving and returning to me’). At the end of this episode, the sound of running water returns her to her past. Later, in a dream that she has entered a cave, she stops to trace lines and circles on a wall of rock. She has not only rediscovered her own artistic past by tracing the outlines of dead bodies; in her dream she is spiritually re-enacting the origins of Western art in the Palaeolithic caves of southern France!
The art of tracing proves to be wide-ranging in scope, encompassing art, writing and even the marks left on a landscape by footsteps and wheels. The search for patterns, on the other hand, proves futile. The Chief of Police and the ‘cryptographers’ at the state capital place their trust in order, but even the chief has to admit that the murders conform to none of the three ‘M’s (Materials, Motives and Method). McGruder takes refuge in Butades’ drawings which he calls ‘Lines in search of a form … Or attempting to escape from all form.’ An ‘astute remark’ which Butades dismisses, but it seems to be clinging to the back of her mind when she later explains to McGruder that the killer is trying to find a pattern, not escape from one. Ultimately, patterns begin to oppress her, encircling her until she has them ‘coming out of [her] ears’.
Faithful to the film noir tradition, the heroine is hard-bitten, wilfully sceptical, and grudgingly tolerant of those she joins on this case: McGruder, the chief, and the hapless Gonzales. She is also hard drinking and self-absorbed. Even McGruder is surprised when he learns that she is not particularly curious to know the identity of the woman found in the water tank. She trades insults with Gonzales and records his description of her as a refugee ‘inblown from some external horror, spinning the collective fate from a few scratches and insufficient lines’ – which is accurate enough as she herself admits, and in one canny phrase delivers to the reader that constant mutual relationship between the acts of writing and drawing.
Butades has a polar opposite in Bella, a roving reporter of ‘blonde ambition’ who arrives with her entourage, the ‘suits’ who join the ‘ghouls, the idle and the just plain crazy’ already drawn to this small nameless town now famous for its series of unsolved murders. Reporters and ‘ghouls’ (the ‘murder tourists’) gather in a media feeding frenzy at Partch’s (sic) Hotel to watch the TV news – scenes that enable Sweeney to give vent to his satirical bent, though the content of this satire is, to my mind, the least original feature of the novel given that so much recent art and literature has already focussed on our mediated (un)reality (‘nothing is real except what’s on television, yet television makes everything unreal’, in the words of David Lehman). But Sweeney has a nice little postmodern trick up his sleeve: either his authorial persona, or else another persona in the shape of an ‘Irish ghoul’ who – always holding a schooner of ‘that black stuff’ no-one recognises – comments on the action with expressions Gonzales records in an attempt to improve his English!
‘Labels are best left on luggage,’ said Fellini, but the term ‘postmodern’ is a useful description of this novel in that it embodies so many features and attributes of the culture of parody and deliberate artifice. Its style is deceptively simple; short sentences mainly and without conjunctions, slightly abrupt, delineating landscape with the speed and precision with which Butades traces an outline around a murder victim:
Out there, there’s mostly just the heat. A patch of weed, trashcan with no lid, flies most days up against the screen door. I pay no attention …
But it’s a brand of laconicism that incorporates parodies of the biblical Genesis (‘I closed the line, saw it was good’; a lone ant exiled from his tribe becomes ‘Ishmael’), and no doubt snatches of dialogue from film noir I don’t have the expertise to detect. And what are we to make of Butades’ use of the word ‘anabasis’ when she drives off into the desert and is worried about a safe return? (‘The question was … whether some kind of anabasis awaited me.’) What impels her to use a word so freighted with history and literature (consider Xenophon’s Anabasis in which a large army of mercenaries struggles to reach the comparative safety of the Black Sea coast)? Another case of parody? Most probably, but Butades’ American English is so ‘pitch perfect’ that we tend to forget that, like her namesake, she is Greek in origin. The word (and therefore the parody) would come naturally to her.
Throughout the narrative, we are poised for a revelation: the identity of the murderer or the ‘something trying to get out’ of the ‘multiple mismanaged scrawls’ of Butades’ papers. She herself experiences an eerie example of this keenly felt expectation in her dark room, when a print gradually ‘comes to life’. Ironically, it’s the photograph of the woman found in the water tank; the body ‘seemed to float to the surface of that shallow tray’. The artist eventually metamorphoses into an imago of herself in an epilogue that leaves the reader wondering which doppelgänger is the real Diotima Butades. This is a novel in which emergent forms fossilise upon realisation, the empty outlines of the dead exemplifying the epigraph from Paul Klee (‘Form is death … Form-giving is life’). And then there are the numerous scrawls and lines and circles that seem to take us back to the very origins of art and the artistic impulse, just as Michelangelo liked to imagine that all the arts and even the sciences stem from the act of drawing. If this is a murder mystery, it is one in which – refreshingly – the sentimental love interest is nil and the psychology is buried deep.
TED JENNER is an Auckland writer who has published two books of poetry, one book of poems, short fiction and travel anecdotes, and two books of translations from ancient Greek poetry. His new book of poems The arrow that missed is due out this year from Cold Hub Press.