Words by Ellen Cregan
Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man is a fascinating and at times melancholic collection of short fiction. The stories are fragments, drawn together by the presence of the protagonist who is also named Luke. Set predominately in Luke’s hometown—the Western Sydney suburb of Liverpool (again, the author and his protagonist have this in common)—they communicate and reflect on a multicultural Australian adolescence. In his introduction to the collection, Carman writes that Sydney’s western suburbs have been largely absent from the face of Australian fiction, and it’s clear that he has aimed to represent Liverpool as faithfully as possible. His writing often focuses on the ugliness of working class suburbia and the pain of being an outsider, yet manages to achieve a balance. Carman seeks to show this corner of Australia with authenticity, warts and all.
Luke is an outsider in many ways. He pursues a career as a writer, becomes fixated with pop culture and literary figures, and is portrayed as incredibly awkward and eccentric at times. But there are many other misfits here too: cultural outsiders, addicts, poetry reciting hipsters and grown women able to see ghosts, among many others. Common to all these stories is a search for belonging and meaning. While the search for these ideals remains present throughout, they often prove hard to find, or turn out to be far from ideal.
At times it seems these stories are more than just fiction; that the characters and their lives are rooted in reality. Their stories are familiar. In ‘217o’ a young woman is drawn into a life of addiction via an abusive relationship. In ‘West Suburbia Boys’, adolescent dreams of fame fade into an adulthood of blue collar work. Carman recalls these tales from a far away vantage point, at once involved but unable to interfere. He is, like his protagonist, often a passive force, constantly in the midst of the action but solely as an observer who cannot save anybody.
Carman’s style is accessible and not overly complicated, but it does become surreal at times. His stories are almost effortless in their execution, shifting from the voice of a child figuring out his father to that of a grown man preaching Kerouac’s inadequacies on the train. They capture a sense of suburbia, and the everyday losses we face as we grow up. There is a sense of paralysis to these stories. While the protagonist Luke moves away, Liverpool remains a centre of familiar faces and childhood friends. It is as if Luke and Liverpool are intertwined—he will always be a ‘west suburbia boy’.
The way that each story joins together is subtle. The end result is a sense of wholeness, rather than a rigid timeline. This wholeness makes the collection, causing each fragment of Luke’s life seem all the more realistic and familiar. No one in these stories goes on to greatness; each is quietly lost to monotony. Many of the situations Carman presents his reader with are familiar, and the sadness that encapsulates many of these stories is made all the more recognisable for this reason. Overall, this makes for an engaging read, and a text that seems to live beyond its final page.