Luke Carman’s stories examine the inner lives of others

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SHORT STORIES
An ordinary ecstasy

Luc Carman
Giramondo, $26.95

Readers of Luke Carman’s first collection of stories, An elegant young manmay find themselves referring to the cover of An ordinary ecstasy to make sure it is the same author. Carman’s debut, which won the NSW Premier’s Award for New Writing in 2015, built its energy from a wry, self-deprecating first-person narrator whose name was, inevitably, Luke Francis Carman. It was remarkable for the joy and playfulness of the text, featuring a writer both profound and profane, whose fictional avatar roamed Liverpool and other parts of Sydney.

A reviewer has given Carman the nickname “loafing bogan,” a fitting description An elegant young man perfectly fine but not fitting for the latest collection, which embraces the lives of others with a modernist emphasis on memory and interiority.

At the sentence level, Luke Carman is perhaps one of Australia’s most eloquent writers. Credit:Marnia Rothe

In An ordinary ecstasy, Carman writes about a range of strangers, chronic overthinkers, and wayward souls focusing on their inner lives. What happens on the outside—the events, the plots, the interactions—most often serve as catalysts for mental excursions either into the past or into a self-reflective fugue state. These characters are in search of “a secret of the universe preserved under the excess of the ordinary”.

This orientation to memory is most strongly reinforced by the opening story A beckoning candle, during which a man discovers a sewer leak in his garden and leaves, like Leopold Bloom, one day like any other, to meet strangers and friends in good weather, while exploring his inner consciousness, with decisions with consequences never as dramatic as debating whether to buy a pack of cigarettes. The protagonist, Joseph, is “full of words, like a piñata”, and much of his day is spent trying to reconcile the banality of life with the grand proclamations found in books: “what was the purpose of all those days, weeks, and years that I’ve sacrificed memorizing the footnotes of civilization by rote? ” he is asking himself.

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Likewise, the titular story finds Holly taking too seriously the silly question posed by a suitor on a dating app: “what’s the MOST beautiful THING you’ve ever seen?” This rather benign question sends Holly into a cyclonic introspection in which “against her will, memories came flooding back to her, from every angle they pressed at her.”

Other stories, including Tears on Main Street and A woman clings to her lover, finding a balance between inner life and outer action. The first, the highlight of the collection, features a man, having suffered a second divorce, who finds a classmate named August for a trip to Byron Bay where he plans to settle a small sporting grudge.

In 2016, Carman wrote a now notorious essay titled Become square in a jerky circlean “insider account of the state of Australia’s so-called ‘writing culture'” and an unfavorable jeremiad against ‘social climbers of the arts’ who aspire to power over the literary world.

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