An Ordinary Ecstasy
by Luke Carman
Published July 2022
In Luke Carman’s 2013 debut, An Elegant Young Man, the Kerouac-revering narrator from Western Sydney had his wayward literary influences corrected by a university education, and went running back to ‘beat, beat, beat’ on the doors of his old friends to apprise them of the fact ‘that Australia is not the place for ecstatic truth’. As the coy repetition suggests, the evangelistic about-turn was an ironic one: Carman had no interest in preserving the sanctity of an ‘Australian’ voice, dramatising instead the volatile swing of the cringe between reverent imitation and a parochial insistence on the local. That ‘the cringe’ was just the kind of ‘missile’ which a certain kind of ‘Australian Intellectual … delights to toss at the Australian mob’ was something A.A. Phillips foresaw when he coined the term. Charting the travails of his auto-fictive narrator as he ventured from Western Sydney into more cosmopolitan circles – the humiliating missteps and wild over-corrections, the paroxysms of devotion followed by renunciation – and implicating him, belatedly, in the relay of condescension, Carman put the lie to those of us who’d act as though we’d sprung, wise as Athena, from the side of Zeus’ head fully-formed.
While A.A. Phillips hoped that Australians would one day master ‘the art of being un-self-consciously ourselves,’ Carman’s debut discerned something insistently histrionic in the Australian character, making a persuasive case that self-consciousness is an inevitable response to the ironies of living in a colonial nation. Continuing in a similar vein, but with a substantive move into third person narration, his latest short story collection, An Ordinary Ecstasy, features a wider cast of characters and border crossings, catching a fresh range of Australian ironies in its mesh.
In ‘Sit Down Young Stranger,’ folk musician Liam Henley travels to Katoomba to attend the exhibition opening of his artist friend, who has asked him to perform the love-song which has earnt him modest renown. Panicking to find the woman who inspired it in the audience, he instead sings ‘Redfern Blues,’ a cover of Guy Clark’s ‘Dublin Blues’ with some ‘local references’ swapped in, hoping the folk song is ‘obscure enough’ to be passed off as new material. At first glance Liam is a plagiarising chancer, but in choosing a music genre in which reinterpretation and regional amendments are run-of-the-mill, and foregrounding the fact that ‘Dublin Blues’ was written by an American, Carman troubles any simple notion of authenticity.
Still, there remains a nagging incongruity that gets at the peculiar plight of Australian artist. As a literary analogue to Liam’s song, Madeleine Watts’ 2020 novel The Inland Sea achieved the curious feat of distilling Redfern, via a young white woman’s voice, into a fine Didionesque cadence, earning critical acclaim abroad. (Here in Australia, where it was hard to miss the colonial implications of such artful curation, the novel failed to secure a publisher.) While his characters may try and squint away all manner of impertinent reality, self-deprecating Carman seems constitutionally unable to affect such dissociative poise. From the moment Liam’s lyric-worthy train-ride into the Blue Mountains at sunset terminates in the heavily touristed Katoomba, with its jumble of faux ‘provincial’ French restaurants, American-style burger joints, and ‘Little England’ theme pubs, he seems compromised by the uncertain provenance of this gentrifying terrain. Shaken by the underwhelming response of the local hipster transplants (‘filth wizards’) to his set, he exiles himself to an empty amphitheatre at the bottom of the street, where he plays to a more exalted audience of stars.
It’s a signature move of the Carman romantic, dramatizing the brittle psyche of the non-Indigenous Australian who, feeling himself to be an impostor, puts himself pre-emptively on the periphery. In his debut, Carman was already recasting the drama of Centre and Periphery in localised iterations: attending a wharf-side event at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, Luke and his mate Brent studiously avoided the middlebrows, ending up at the furthest perimeter of crowd. (In a moment of abject epiphany, Brent vomited, admitting, ‘I hate my life’.) Like the old Groucho-Marx joke, these self-conscious idealists refuse to be part of any club that might have them as a member, but scratch the sardonic surface and they are full of earnest longing, holding out (like another restless fictional provincial, Frankie Adams) for their ideal ‘we of me’. Down in the amphitheatre, Liam glimpses apparitions in the mist: his unrequited love summonsed by song? Just a couple of Katoomba teens in hoodies, asking, ‘You ever seen a three-metre flatty?’ before knocking him out. As the viral prank prevails over Art, a kookaburra, blunt signifier of antipodean laughter, wonders ‘what to make of this strange, wormy thing in the grass below’.
Ritually bringing his characters to their knees, Carman consoles them with the logic of the holy fool, whose immoderate passions, as per the Bible, shame the ‘craftiness’ of the wise. Prevalent in the work of Dostoevsky and Thomas Bernhard, the archetype also has a foothold in Australian literature, not least in the poetry of Les Murray, and it’s not hard to see the appeal; the humble antipodean with a direct line to the stars. Carman offers his tongue in cheek additions to the canon.
One of the collection’s standouts is Joseph, from the novella-length opening story, ‘A Beckoning Candle,’ a 73-year-old pensioner who never finished his Leaving Certificate and requires only the promise of a pack of Benson and Hedges to launch him into poetic flight: ‘the livid anticipation coursing along his thrumming nerves, squeezing moist mandalas of sweat from the glands under his pits for that first flashing spark of lighter wheel leaping into the air.’ Who needs the world’s approbation when you hold the universe in your stinking armpit? Thumbing his nose at the elite overseers of his Catholic upbringing (‘old perverts’), Joseph roves his suburb with the air of a lay preacher, bestowing blessings on his neighbours’ gardens, every encounter an opportunity for an impromptu sermon, nothing too profane to be grist for the mill. Consoling an agnostic neighbour who is despairing the deteriorating health of her hospice-bound husband, he recalls watching the 1967 Elvis Comeback Special with his mates, who were initially sceptical about the ‘fat, washed-up relic’ on the TV screen but were soon swept up in a ‘mystical conversion’:
Tough, hardworking men, uncouth and without pity, brutish men, you might say, men not much more refined than beasts, and there they stood, transmuted into their higher parts, and you could feel the spirit radiating off them, hovering around us in all its infinite potential. And one by one, they turned to me, and the light we all shared for that unforgettable moment was like a fire in our eyes!
Abruptly coming round from this bravura performance, Joseph heads homeward and the story turns to the situation on the home-front that he has been so volubly evading. Demolition of the Commission houses neighbouring his property has unsettled the old underground sewerage pipes: in a lashing of Rabelaisian irony, the man afflicted with a serious case of verbal diarrhoea is now standing knee deep in a ‘river of shit.’
Thinking of Rabelais, Milan Kundera imagined ‘that the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter.’ Short in form but not in polyphonic spirit, Carman’s stories exploit the fact that down in the antipodes that echo can seem deeper, indistinguishable from a jeering chorus of locals keen to see any king for a day dethroned. Proceeding in lofty, ornately wrought sentences, incongruous to the mundane matters at hand, and ruled by the merciless rhythm of pathos then bathos, there’s a touch of Joseph Furphy to these stories – an author that A.A. Phillips praised for his ‘isocratic irreverence,’ that famously Australian tendency of bringing down to size. Yet Carman is more interested in exposing such tics of national character than consolidating them. Recalling a ‘stormy night’ when he was a boy, when he seized a rifle to protect his widowed mother from a man who came knocking, Joseph’s self-aggrandising indirect narration seems to slip into a troubling ante-realm of The Drover’s Wife (‘that cur, the stinking metho and ash-daubed critter… eyes red and yellow like a gutted blacksnake’). It’s an irreverent sampling of the canonical Australian story, notes of Lawsonian economy subsumed into Joseph’s hyperbolic oration, a stylistic tug of war enlivening the prose. From the vantage point of a senile mind, one in which the boundaries between memory and myth have grown porous, the story illuminates the suspect process by which national character is forged. Like the old underground pipes, Joseph’s systems of repression are struggling to flush away the indicting evidence. Surveying ‘the ruin of his domain’ and the ‘snaking’ of the council hose brought to pump the flood of sewage away, he is reminded him of ‘something malevolent, an awful dying thing.’ A reader might think of Indigenous mythologies, ancestral serpents, and the desecration wrought by colonisation; Joseph’s mind veers away from illumination as he approaches it.
Circumlocutory and recursive, these stories work like the subconscious, leading their protagonist towards, then insulating them from, the full reality of their situation. Astute on the mechanics of evasion, they are also masterclasses on how to layer the form with questions of national identity, literary style and the cultural cringe, without seeming worthy or belaboured. Proceeding with affection rather than righteous condemnation, Carman lets his digressive monologists indict themselves.
The novella-length ‘Tears on Main Street,’ offers another fine addition to the holy fool canon: Augustus Augustine, ‘an innocent, overflowing all the while with inchoate theories that he’d conceived’ working in the deli section of a supermarket, whose friends venerate him, ironically, as a ‘saint.’ This character seems to have been reprised from Carman’s debut, where he was known as Arnold Augustine, one of those old school friends who Luke condescended to (‘I’ve been to university now … and it shits me to tears because you don’t realise that Australia, the country that you’re supposed to be from, doesn’t have any-damn-thing to do with Kerouac.’) Safe to assume that the unnamed narrator of this story is a now middle-aged Luke. At a loose end in the wake of his second divorce, he joins his friend on a road-trip to the Northern Rivers. While Augustus has planned a wrestling match with an old nemesis in Byron, the road-trip is essentially a premise for this ‘innocent’ to submit his educated friend to his own informally acquired wisdom, dispensed in long monologues that suggest he has not been swayed from the epic, lyrical mode.
The story is animated less by the machinations of plot than by the rhythm of Augustus’ rhetorical efforts to dance his way around his fate, to lift his head above all-too-human indignities and complexities. A pit-stop at the Big Banana prompts a moment of kitsch communion, raising the spectre of non-Indigenous belonging. Reflecting upon his own experiences of racism as a man of Fijian heritage, Augustus begins a speech that takes a circuitous route (an ascent that is at once enchanting and gruelling) to its self-consoling epiphany: he realises he in fact pities ‘sincerely, all who belong, because I find myself free from the anxieties of contradiction’. Trailing extra-literary static, Augustus’ speech carries a mischievous echo of a sentiment expressed by Nam Le in his Writers on Writers essay on David Malouf, where he floated the idea that as a Vietnamese-born refugee, so often excluded from the national imaginary, he was at least free from the anxiety of trying to pass. As Carman places the sentiment in the context of a friendship that has not evolved beyond its old rhythms of one-upmanship, we suspect Augustus’ improvised stance will only serve him until it doesn’t. By the story’s close he is crying in the street after being unceremoniously ejected from a Byron Bay nightclub.
Armed only with their home-brewed philosophies, swinging between hilarity and heartbreak, Carman’s characters routinely offend the gods of proportion. There’s something refreshingly incautious in the way he troubles his characters’ pieties, sending them on journeys outside of their comfort zones and into unfamiliar terrain. In ‘An Article of Faith’ he switches focus from his untutored naïfs to a member of the educated elite. Recent arts graduate Emma, now employed as a journalist, has been charged with interviewing Bobby Duncan, Blacktown’s Citizen of the Year. Though Emma’s descent from her ‘ivory tower’ to a housing estate in Western Sydney marks a coy reversal of Carman’s usual trajectory, he preserves a familiar mutinous gesture. Revolting against her boss’s expectation that she turn in a puff-piece full of ‘generic phrases’, Emma is inspired to risk her job by instead capturing ‘all the Baudelairean riches of an Aussie fugue passing through the ordinary excess along the way … going out not with a whimper, but a bang.’ Conscious of her privilege, worrying after the best form in which to ‘sing the song of my people,’ she is full of the internalised correctives of a female arts graduate (‘I am no Joan Didion, nor was meant to be’ – maybe a film directed by Jane Campion?) For all her fastidiousness, the interview is derailed by a series of unruly neighbours impatient to have their own fifteen minutes in the limelight, their interruptions cutting short Bobby’s traumatic back story and thwarting the sentimental pay-off that is journalistic gold. While she struggles to take the reins, the ideal form – jostling, irreverent and polyphonic – is, of course, being forged, slantwise there on the page.
All the while Carman, Mount Pritchard rube-cum-published author and creative writing teacher, hovers above and between. His affection surely leans toward the autodidacts, who offer a compelling figure to the lowly antipodean writer: ascending to lyrical heights fuelled by nothing but self-belief and evangelistic zeal. Whether it’s the development propagandist or the platitudinous journalist, these stories evince a wariness of the educated speaker, who, like the ‘genteel demon’ Joseph remembers from his Catholic education, plays ‘a trumpet with [their] rump’. Yet as a motley troupe of lay preachers and armchair philosophers hustle their way across the page, they are curiously reminiscent of the ‘hypocrites in robes’ and ‘pseudo-shamans’ to which they oppose themselves. The off-the-cuff ingenuity of their vernacular is barely distinguishable from the winking forgery of it (‘wide as a proverbial rhinoceros’; ‘head like an anvil’) and their most heartfelt soliloquies betray signs of having been refined over the course of multiple reiterations, buffed up to a shine. The collection offers an unruly succession of non-Indigenous Australians whose only recourse to being ‘natural’ is in the archaic sense of the word, a natural fool. But can a fool still considered holy when he starts to act wise?
Meet Justin from ‘A Woman to Her Lover Clings’, a writer who is meant to be working on a cycle of poems exploring ‘a series of dynastic intrigues amongst a kingdom of crab-clans on an island off the eastern coast of Australia,’ but whiles away much of his time making the rounds of backyard parties and evening soirées, soliloquising with ‘a certain robotic solemnity’ on the existence of an ‘arts mafia’. After this party trick Justin appears spent, ‘like a scarecrow who had dug his stuffing out and tossed it into the air, and had become a puddle of old empty rags.’ Blurring the line between serious writer and shit-stirring poetaster, Carman throws himself into the fray. Shining the merciless light of satire back on his ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’screed, he manages to out-hyperbolise himself (‘A clandestine tribe of leather-jocks and bondage-maidens are out there right this minute, all of them with an endless, insatiable appetite for psychosexual discipline…’).
The story is focalised through Justin’s wife Alice, who is working in academia to keep the unsympathetic loafer solvent. Snooping on her husband’s laptop, she finds a folder containing all the histories of crustacea. An archive positively Murnanian in its recursive scope (‘folders within folders, lists made of innumerable dates, uninteresting documents ad infinitum), it confirms her worse suspicions: her husband’s true fidelity is to his art. Though Alice’s somewhat benumbed perspective casts a stringent light on his fictional cipher, the story is no simple mea culpa. As she duly notes the ‘highly arch and ironic tone’ of her husband’s scribblings, but wonders to what end, we hear the echoes of old comment sections, and are struck, once again, by the temperamental asymmetry between the irreverent satirist prone to figurative excess, and his literalist responders, with their conscientious parsing. Playing ‘nursemaid’ to the drunken orator, ushering him along as he stumbles down share-house hallways like ‘an old blind king,’ Alice’s relationship with Justin is slyly analogous to that between artist and festival aide.
With its inside-jokes and extra-textual referents, this is no hermetic, temperature-controlled story courting placement in The New Yorker. While reopening the Jerking Off files may not seem the most judicious move, it’s to be expected from a writer whose work, across genres, has been animated by an irrepressible, Raskolnikovian impulse to return to the scene of the crime. In the essay ‘A Portrait of the Artist in Residence’, from his 2019 collection Intimate Antipathies, Carman wrote of his decision to accept an invitation to deliver a guest lecture at a university when he realised a woman with whom he had once studied had tenure there, motivated solely by a desire to impress upon this former classmate that he had evolved beyond his Henry Miller-inspired undergraduate posturing. Prudently reorienting his gaze towards a female, migrant Australian writer, he prepared a lecture on Antigone Kefala’s Sydney Journals. Discovering too late that his target audience was away on a residency of her own, he was faced with a mere room full of restless undergraduates, and his redemption was – in true Carman fashion – anticlimactically withheld.
Though this penitent performance was laced with irony, it was shot through with something more tender, a nostalgia for the younger self and his reckless folly. Ostensibly a satire, ‘A Woman to Her Lover Clings,’ pulls off a similar feat of variegated tone. As Justin takes the stage like ‘Alexander assessing his veterans at the edge of the Indus’ to launch his poetry debut (‘the first in a flurry of ever-preceding hatchlings, which are soon to be assembled on a bright new shore of Australian literary culture’), there’s an elegiac warmth pulsing through the self-parody. Immortalising the ‘Westie push,’ a moment of fleeting grandeur when the Centre seemed not Over There, but in Western Sydney, the story looks back through the mist onto a more innocent time.
The collection was written across successive lockdowns, and though the pandemic is rarely in the foreground, these stories, with their peripatetic form and lyrical intensity, bear the hallmark of those state-mandated minutes of daily exercise, plumbing our neighbourhoods for all their psycho-geographical worth. ‘Why did the druids of old draw faces in the trees?’ Joseph wonders. Showering praise on his neighbours’ plants and flowers, he enacts the pastoral convention foundational to elegy, bringing the world back to life. Celebrating the ingenuity of these resourceful provincials as they sing the song of themselves, Carman never lets us forget that their effusive desire to sanctify the terrain fits the remit of the settler project. And yet the air of anxious ebullience has surely been intensified by our recent glimpse of the abyss. Whether posing it to a hypomanic neighbour or a Higher Power, these characters keep asking the ultimate question: What’s the meaning of it all? What’s the point? Carman, who was raised Catholic, equivocates on whether to lean on hope or despair (one story quotes Orson Welles: ‘Well, if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’) There’s a winking artifice to the ending of some of these stories, which land on a punchline, the protagonist the butt of a cosmic joke. And yet in a land where a friend’s embrace is ‘more suited to aikido than affection,’ these are notably tender maulings. The most brutal stories are those where the comedic impulse is withdrawn altogether.
In the final story, A Night at the House’, a couple expecting a child receive the bleak results of an ultrasound. As the woman retreats into the consolation of childhood memories ‘filtered in a kind of golden haze,’ her husband, who has no such happy foundation, begins to unravel. An anxious screed details his reluctance to try again, bringing a child into a world of floods, pandemics, and melting icecaps – a breathless mounting litany that ends: ‘I’m not even sure I want to go on living myself half the time.’ And there you have it; this is why Carman’s characters keep talking, fulminating. Coming on like Hamlet, the king of all soliloquisers, beneath their antic comedy, pressurised speech and figurative excesses lie the same grave stakes.
The collection ends with the couple sitting silent, bereft, post-argument in their car, watching something on the ‘darkening horizon’ flying toward them, ‘closing the impossible distance’. It’s a telescoping gesture that might stand for the aspiration of the characters in this collection, as they reach across the void between one another; between demographics; between Australia and the wider world; between mere mortals and an obtuse, withholding God. Solipsists who go on talking at cross-purposes while despairing of anyone really listening, they inspire a protective instinct. It would take a particularly self-regarding reader to fail to recognise something of themselves in these characters’ flawed humanity, their desperate, sublimated efforts to keep the faith.
Writing, of course, involves its own steep alternations of consolation and doubt. After reading this collection riven by the anxiety of imposture, I’m tempted to part the veil of impartiality and assert that Carman is the Real Deal. But mindful of what dispensations of justice greet the earnest, I’ll restrain the impulse and channel it into a genteel blurb. Incantatory and monomaniacal, tender and mutinous, An Ordinary Ecstasy is a stellar, inimitable collection. Long may these characters live on, lost in their fist fights with the fog.