Murder most foul, in the strange natural world of southern Utah.
I first came into possession of my fellow blogger’s novel at least two years ago, before she was a fellow blogger, when Patricia very kindly sent me a copy with the understanding that I would review it for the Times & Seasons. I read the book at once but never managed to write up a review, and over the months the good student at the seat of my psyche got guilty and anxious. So I was pleased and relieved recently to have occasion to pull out the book again and write up my thoughts about the novel as part of my presentation at the MSH conference.
The Pictograph Murders was published by Signature Book in 2004, and was awarded the prize for Best Novel by the Association for Mormon Letters that same year. The novel is a murder mystery set at an archaeological dig in southern Utah, at the center of which the philosophically-minded detective-protagonist, Alex, observes the unfolding events through the twin lenses of Navajo folklore and a recondite ecological consciousness. Alex is LDS, as are a number of the supporting characters, and the eco-religious politics of Mormonism in rural southern Utah play an important part in the mystery plot surrounding Tony “Coyote” Balbo, but in general the overtly Mormon content in the novel is minimal.
The narrative symbolism, however, is Mormon through and through. The story is essentially a re-telling of the Mormon temple narrative: an anti-god, Coyote, is cast out of heaven for over-reaching, and takes up residence as the local god of whatâ€™s called a â€œgarden of significanceâ€ (336), the field school; Alex, the protagonist, dramatizes the primal story of innocence, choice, sin, fall and exodus, as she herself falls under Tony Balboâ€™s spell and succumbs, momentarily, to enmity; while outside the garden, she encounters a divine messenger who approaches with a transformative gesture; she descends to hell, Tonyâ€™s cave, but is ultimately saved by her dog Kit, a clear Christ-figure who is repeatedly placed liminal to light, â€œher body divided in half between the weak light from the bulbs and the darkness beyond the tentâ€ (159). The story is replete with temple imagery, including a holy place called the Water Temple, and an esoteric philosophy of choice, creation and Otherness. In this way the novel works to re-set a theologically Mormon theogony in a historically Mormon context, southern Utah, even as it recasts that familiar landscape in wild and alien terms.
Karamesines’ philosophical ambitions are wider than the limited narrative scope of the genre mystery would at first seem to suggest. Beyond retelling foundational myths, Karamesines undertakes to comment on the contradictions and limitations of art within an ethos of community. The protagonist, Alex, quickly establishes a recognizably literary point-of-view flagged by the alienation of the insider-outsider. Alex is a convert to the church who takes with her to BYU the emotional burden of an abusive background, and from this divided perspective she launches mild critiques of Mormon culture: she satirizes a certain Mormon unreflectiveness captured in the underdone Caedyn, a fellow field-schooler, for example, and complains lightly about Mormon marriage-mindedness. Alex drops knowing references to Yeats and Frost, and an ironic nod to cowboy poet Robert Service, but even as Karamesines marks Alex as a high-literary character in this way, she leaves hints that Alex is not your typical alienated English major: Alexâ€™s field is folklore, not the superstar Romantic poets, weâ€™re told, and sheâ€™s obsessed with Navajo myth.
This is not to say that there is no larger-than-life Romantic artist in the novel, however: there is, and I donâ€™t think Iâ€™m giving too much away when I say that itâ€™s the bad guy. Tony Balbo, who styles himself as the Navajo folklore character Coyote, is set up from the beginning as the prime suspect—the mystery is not so much a whodunit as a â€œhow did he do it?â€—and, also from the beginning, heâ€™s shown to be a classic outsider artist: alienated, charismatic, possessed of (and by) a vigorous personal aesthetic the business end of which he is not afraid to wave at his audience. Weâ€™re first introduced to Tony through his alter-ego, Coyote, who has been cast out of the theater of the gods into the world outside; before he goes, though, he scratches a representation of the gods onto a stone:
[Coyote] turned the stone around to reveal the portrait he had scratched into it. He really did have skill as an artist even if he said so himself. The gods gazed on it in silence. The First Angry laid the stone in the sand, portrait side down.
â€œI give it to you as a gift,â€ First Angry said. â€œAnd now, Iâ€™m out of here.â€
As he walked away, he heard Man Counting say, â€œI thought we were bigger than that.â€ (4)
In this short passage we see the artist as outsider, we see art as subversion, and we see the tension that Karamesines sets up between the capital-A Art represented by Tony and the folklore beloved by Alex. At the climax of the novel, these two views of art and form come head to head in a perfectly evocative setting: in a remote cave, Tony has created an installation of pottery shards stolen from the dig site, broken and hung in a kind of Calder-esque kinetic scupture. Tony has literally appropriated, de-contextualized, and re-invented these inherited artistic forms according to a robust personal sensibility—and while the scene is striking, Alex rejects Tonyâ€™s aesthetic of subversion and invention:
â€œA lot of art is clever,” Alex said. “But it isnâ€™t beautiful. Your ‘effort’ works in the way a lot of art works—as a monument to violation.” (334)
Tonyâ€™s installation defies in every particular Alexâ€™s aesthetic of redemption and community embodied in an archaic Indian pictograph wall she visits frequently. We read of the panel:
Presumably some isolated band of Archaic Indians had produced this series of pictographs. Strange and phantasmal, the most impressive images had massive, trapezoidal bodies, wide at the shoulders, narrowing at their bottom ends or wisping away. â€¦ Between the more ornate images, evaporating spirit bodies of dark brown paint seemed to undulate like smoke in a breeze. (10)
Where Tonyâ€™s sculpture registers the artistâ€™s touch at every turn, the pictograph panel is created anonymously, communally; where the sculpture relies on subversion and re-invention for its effect, the panel uses elaboration, repetition and superior execution of form to achieve its ends. Tellingly, it is in contemplation before the pictograph panel that Alex finally solves the mystery near the novelâ€™s end. Characteristically, Karamesines uses that plot point to comment on the work of novel and novelist herself: it is in the mystery’s resolution that the reader, too, begins to glimpse the tensions acting on the Mormon artist. While the esoteric theogony of the temple themes point toward a wild grace available in the encounter with the Other, the mortal conflict between Alex and Tony gestures toward a homelier ideal of shared communal forms, redemptive precisely because they are familiar and available. It is in this conflict between the alien and the domesticated that Karamesines makes her art, and makes it Mormon.