peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 12 12 LukeCarman AnElegantYoungMan

Luke Carman: An Elegant Young Man.

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Kindle. Perhaps it was reading about the 10th anniversary of the Cronulla riots or the dismal performance of the touring West Indies cricket team that sent me in search of new Australian stories. I thought I'd send a message of support to this bloke, writing from east of where I say I'm from, written in money. It took a day to read it, at Công viên Gia Định ("family park"?), the nearby Porevol Coffee, and later on, Cafe Sỏi Đá in Hồ Chí Minh City. I can't say I didn't get what I paid for.

The first piece (Whitman and the Whitlam Centre) annoyed me as it is written in the Tina Fey style: wouldn't it be funny if ... this is just like ... followed by a literal playing out, and, more often than not, a climb down. By pulling punches after throwing them, Carman revels in insincerity. The relentless assertion/correction pairing at the sentential level gets wearing, like all trolling, and I wouldn't call it poetic. Elizabeth Bryer, literatti:

The collection’s novel-of-education intentions soon become clear: the narrator recounts, in quick succession, different sources of wisdom — certain poets, children's authors, musicians and films — alongside the often contradictory pearly words themselves, without ever making clear to which of these, if any, he subscribes. [...] There is a breakneck energy, here, the impatience of youth, the feeling of needing to know now, of pushing boundaries and of a constant, insatiable thirst for knowledge.

I didn't read any more of her review. This "needing to know" is bullshit: it's just the generic youthful lust for experience. Knowledge (and wisdom) requires one to interpret this experience, and as she admits here, that's precisely what Carman avoids doing. So instead we should ask if the raw material he presents here is actually interesting; does he take us to Western Sydney or has he just written Aussie ethnic lit of the kind that Nam Le derides?

His influences are fairly obvious. Pro wrestling here is low-rent tent boxing. (The lack of an audience is quite amusing.) Somersault was about a road trip starring a restless, frisky Sydney girl. Women have been sexually assertive since ... forever now? Violence in homes and on the streets has been omnipresent in the media since I was a child. Looking to Kerouac is pure necrophilia these days, like trawling Sydney for downmarket jazz bars and expecting to smoke everywhere. There's the odd moment of Romper Stomper anthropology, and many nods to Chopper-style self promotion. But these, of course, point south to Melbourne and not west to Mount Pritchard. He evokes the instability of Mark Latham at times. And really — really — don't we all have stories of unhinged behaviour arising from teenage boredom? I admit that mine do not feature guns.

A thread of defeat runs deeply through all these stories: At 39%: "As always, if given sufficient time, I'd make up my mind to do nothing." and 71%: "[...] I could understand how Hugh escaped into books so often that he'd bent into a permanent shrug." I see this as pure Australiana, but having said it, why does Carman want to get into literature?

The argot of Western Sydney presented here demonstrates that the droll Australian mode of expression is dead; it's all totally crass now, and to be frank, Carman's language never excites. He doesn't explore/excoriate the classic coming-of-age Australian stories, or any of the vast material of immigrant experience such as the plays of David Williamson that we got drilled on as kids. Paul Kelly's kitchen-sink songs must be passe. To go to a bowling club, an RSL, and not have an angle on the going down of the sun, on Khe Sanh, reduces those settings to anywhere, any time, without the authentic 1972 prices of Hồ Chí Minh City. Look instead to Don Walker for something that is more than a snapshot of any given day near Liverpool.

Sydney's literatti wet itself when this book was released. I get the impression that most reviewers were women. Certainly those I skimmed showed little comprehension of blokey culture; there's nothing particularly unique about getting a fist in the face in Cronulla (cf the myriad king hits in pre-shut-out Kings Cross, "bring back the biff" in rugby league, the roughness of old mining towns like Newcastle, Wollongong, Cessnock, etc.). They got excited by its adoption/imitation of literary styles more modern than Patrick White's modernism. The street poetry of Sydney for my time there was hip hop, far more radical and inclusive than Kerouac, and there's no sign of those themes here.