Elizabeth Bryer reviews An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman
by Luke Carman
Reviewed by ELIZABETH BRYER
Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man, a formally innovative bildungsroman, is composed of eight story cycles set in Sydney’s multicultural western suburbs. The shortest of the cycles are the most experimental; these alternate with longer, more structurally conventional ones. The idea of the narrator as a version of the author is foregrounded from the first sentence, when the narrator tells us that his name is Luke.
In the opening story cycle ‘Whitman and the Whitlam Centre’ the sentences are short but, given the way they reel from one topic to the next, the effect isn’t to slow the reading down; instead, the sentences come like rapid-fire bursts that pepper the reader from every direction. 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. Thus there is the sense of the narrator throwing himself into the world, absorbing what comes into his orbit and seeking out whatever catches his interest, but not necessarily settling on anything concrete just yet. 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. The confusion that is the world—its immensity and its perplexing incongruities—is also highlighted through this structure.
The reader’s narrative expectations are interrupted at every turn. The narrator’s associations are often unpredictable; the story appears to be going in one direction but then heads in another, often in the space between one sentence and the next. It’s worth taking a detailed look at the first five sentences of the second story of ‘Whitman and the Whitlam Centre’ to see the considerable degree to which this occurs.
The passage begins: ‘My name’s Luke and sometimes at parties when people ask me what it is that I do I say, “I’m a professional fraud, how ’bout you?” Nobody ever laughs.’ (6) On my first encounter with this opening, I expected it to lead to an exploration of identity, and it does, in a sense, but by way of an unexpected route of association: ‘To be honest I don’t go to a lot of parties.’ The admission comes from left of field and feels somehow dejected, a subdued confession after the previous story’s hyperactive energy, and after the more recent recollection of the narrator’s failed attempt at a party joke. In this way, the change in narrative direction is often accompanied by a change in key in terms of tone and emotive register.
The pattern of unexpected association continues when the next sentence similarly barrels off in a related, but surprising, direction: ‘Y’know I read in the newspaper yesterday that cocaine use has skyrocketed in Sydney despite police efforts.’ The association the reader makes between this sentence and the previous three might be expressed as: OK, so those parties that Luke just admitted to missing out on—this is what must happen at them. The perspective is detached; it reads as a serious consideration from a narrator abreast of current issues. But just in case any of those conclusions start to seem stable or definitive, then comes the next sentence, a humorous, contradictory take on the situation that might also evoke in the reader sympathy towards the narrator and his apparent aloneness: ‘I guess that it’s good to know that somewhere out there people are having fun’.
Throughout this and other stories, the effect of the narrative technique on the reader is as an almost schizophrenic vacillation between chuckling with the narrator, feeling sympathy for him and simply trying to keep up with the associative leaps of his mind, which seems to take in everything at once and to draw unexpected connections. That Carman manages to achieve this tumult of feeling in the space of just a few short sentences is a remarkable feat.
Place is an important feature in all the stories. Geography is, for the protagonist, not separable from its inhabitants. Granville is not Granville unless viewed through his father’s interactions with the world, just as Liverpool is nothing without Niki and Hadie, and Newtown nought without the university-educated creative denizens he meets.
In these and other places, Luke is a keen observer of the several milieus with which he comes into contact, not least because he often struggles to interpret cues and to act in accordance with them, especially when he isn’t comfortable with their implications. On the train from ‘Livo’ to Cronulla, his friends direct lewd comments at girls. He recounts, ‘I tried to join in. I yelled out, “Show us your milk duds.’ Mazzen said, “Bro, that was a mum. Don’t disrespect.” And everyone was disappointed in me’ (43). Later, he mentions how no-one shakes hands in Livo, but slaps palms together or does fist bumps. ‘I didn’t like it. For one thing, I never knew where their hands were gonna go and if you missed it was bad for both of you’ (53).
This awkwardness makes the narrator an ideal, sensitive observer of the kinds of social interactions that might go unremarked in another work of fiction. One of the shorter story cycles begins with musings on irony, on how Luke believes that people shouldn’t be ironic all the time; the droll title of this cycle is, of course, ironic: ‘The Easy Interactions of an Elegant Young Man’. One of these interactions is between Luke and a woman in a cafe: she comments on the book he is clutching, The Odyssey, and he is so startled he starts sweating and decides to hide the book under his arm in future. Indeed, the only easy interactions here are the ones Luke shares with his imaginary friend.
The narrator’s navigation of the social landscape often involves a navigation of violence. His aversion to it is at times apparent, such as when Niki throws stones at a streetlight, which sail into the night beyond the fence: ‘Every shot she took made me twitch and I worried about them hitting the cows that were mouthing and moving through the grass.’ (52)
The stories explore the notion of violence as a way of life and as a social ritual tied to class through the lens of Luke’s perplexity. The coming-of-age rituals to which Luke’s father subjects him sometimes involve violence, or the threat of such. The first time Luke meets Niki’s boyfriend he, on opening the door, throws a furious, poorly aimed punch at Luke. When a denim-clad, mohawk-wearing ‘scumbag Aussie’ punches Luke in Cronulla, Luke perceives ‘a strange ceremony going on that I needed to do something about. A ritual was taking place, and I was a major player, but I didn’t know my role. I felt afraid that I wouldn’t make the right moves and the crowd would be disappointed in me.’ (49) Luke is even more perplexed when, after he wins the fight, his attacker puts his arm around him and tells him that, as ‘Aussies’—Anglos—they need to stick together.
The end of the collection sees the narrator fulfil the bildungsroman’s coming of age, which takes the form of a melancholic story cycle that connects Luke, his mother and his brother in a triangle of trying to make do, of attempting to find various ways to invest in life enough to keep on with it despite their keen awareness of ‘the murmur of something gone’ (184) and how easy it would be to ‘go to sleep’ (182). It is an affective ending and has, at its centre, a great poise and calm, in contrast to the frantic beginning of the collection.
But perhaps the heart of Luke’s growth comes in the penultimate cycle, which details his encounters with a number of women. Here, he embarks on a journey to warn a friend that everything he told her was wrong, that Kerouac did not have all the answers: the world is not an ecstatic masterpiece but instead ‘moves from order to disorder just like black holes and middle-class families’ (143). In the sites where Kerouac found meaning and epiphanies there is nothing, at least not here, in this context: ‘in Australia there is no beat to keep’ (145); ‘Australia is not the place for ecstatic truth’ (148). He objects to ‘steamrollers flattening the whole culture’ (147), and it is this bland homogenisation, this imitation of idols and ideologies formulated for other times and faraway lands that is key here. It seems Carman has responded to Luke’s agitated realisation: both speaker and author have delivered a work that’s far from derivative or affected, and speaks to and from this country in a way we have rarely seen before.