An Elegant Young Man
by Luke Carman
Giramondo Publishing, November 2013
192 pages / Amazon
by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Hatchette Australia, April 2014
272 pages / Goodreads
A generation is rarely the sum of its parts, especially when it comes to literature. This act of melding, this gluing at the seams, happens long after the fact – with time and history on our side, we look behind us and pick out rhythms of thought, the similarities, the copying, the patterns. We leaf through the remnants of collectives, through correspondence, through journals built on an ideology, and it is as if sense is being spoken to us from beyond the grave. It makes the present appear fragmented and unruly – and it is. Narratives are ascribed later.
In years to come, it won’t be surprising to look back at the present day and think the short story collection was experiencing an awakening in Australia, that every writer of the age was a proponent of the short form. The reason for this is that the short story collection, particularly those by debutant authors, is a common sight on bookshop shelves. Three collections recently released are Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke, An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, and Captives by Angela Meyer. Each of these authors is young, debuting with a short story collection of literary fiction, and writing out of one of Australia’s two biggest cities. These authors represent Australia’s next generation of writers; though these books are their debuts, they will not be their last. It’s therefore worth evaluating now what this generation represents, and the way in which their work foreshadows what comes next, before history gets a hold of it.
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke begins with a quote from Chinua Achebe: “Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” It’s an unambiguous statement of what to expect from the following pages, but it’s also a bold way to step out. Boldness, in fiction, is a virtue, is to be encouraged. But to match boldness with a deftness of touch isn’t easy – especially for an author on debut.
The stories in Foreign Soil are ultimately concerned with social justice. It’s not a bad place to pull narratives from, but there is tension throughout the collection between the stories as ideas and as the fictional representation of these ideas – that is, as stories. It’s a difficult balance to find, particularly for a debut author, and, at times, Clarke inevitably struggles.
These stories do not poke at the essence of being. Instead, Clarke posits that we have other fundamental problems to solve before we are comfortable enough to think about what exactly it means to be – some of us at least: the visitor, the foreigner, the outsider – and especially not when basic cruelty is as prevalent as it is. Beyond the mention of oppressive heat or emerald hills, they don’t evoke a time or place through detail or imagery. The noises and feeling of life here is abstract. Many of the stories end with a situation being brought to a crisis and the hint of what will happen next. What gets left are ideas – which Clarke places in the hands of the reader to be either turned over and held up for examination, or discarded. Clarke makes it hard to forget about the story just read, but giving the reader the kindness of choice diminishes that boldness.
Take ‘Big Island’, for instance. The story explores protagonist Nathanial Robinson’s enduring love of Kingston in Jamaica – his home: “Im nyah care dat it a tiny-small speck in de middle ov de world. Im cyant tink ov nowhere bettah im like.” But then he sees photographs of the West Indies cricket team being treated like gods in the distant paradise of Australia. “In dis country, dis Owstrayleah, look like dem happy-friendly an nat givin an owl-hoot wat colour skin ye gat wen ye turn up, like dem gat nat a care in de world bout trivialities like dat.” Like removing a stone from the earth, exposing beetles underneath to the sun, something in Nathanial becomes unsettled.
The irony here, of course, is that even if at one point in the history of the land that, to Nathanial Robinson, seems so distant was actually true, it isn’t the case in 2014. As an idea –at once using and subverting the maxim of sport being the great equalizer – brings a compelling and unique perspective to an argument grown weary (which is again taken up in the following story, ‘The Stilt Fishermen of Kathaluwa’); as fiction, it asks for more.
‘Harlem Jones’ suffers in a similar way. The story reimagines the events of the 2011 riots in North London that followed the death of Mark Duggan who was shot and killed by police. Harlem and his friend Toby, young black men, disenfranchised and angry, join the riots in Tottenham where they rally against the police. The story ends with Harlem, following an exchange with a police officer, lighting a Molotov cocktail. Again, the reader is left to either speculate on the ethics of Harlem’s actions and of what happens next, or forget about it.
It’s in ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ that the exploration of social issues and the form of the narrative finally serves to counter balance the other, meeting at the point where the narratives of two families in Southern USA intersect. ‘Gaps in the Hickory’ tells the story of Carter, a ten-year old boy who knows he isn’t a boy, his family, and a friend of the family who, when she was Carter’s age, knew she wasn’t a boy either. Subtle exploration of emotional depth, a steady unveiling of family secrets – it’s the collection’s longest story, as well as its most accomplished; maybe the two aren’t incidental. The narrative style – a phonetic rendering of a Southern accent – works to create an extra layer of depth, and maybe this isn’t a coincidence either. Clarke, before her fiction debut, has had poetry widely published, including the chapbooks Gil Scott Heron is on Parole and Nothing Here Needs Fixing. It is curious, then, that the syntax used in the stories is unremarkable and is not itself a focus. What is unsurprising, however, is that the writing itself is most alive in the dialogue, in the use of street slang, patois, in English both accented and broken. Strip away the narrative, forget it is fiction, call it poetry, and this could be magic. The prose, then, often serves a functional purpose – as a freighter for voice, to carry ideas. The question is whether these ideas may have been stronger with the excess sliced off – the problem with this is we get another little-read chapbook instead of a short fiction collection telling stories that you will read nowhere else in the country.
‘Gaps in the Hickory’ manages genuine moments of emotion; it imagines a place where people can be accepted for who and what they are. Clarke doesn’t allow this notion to settle for too long: Ella, the otherwise angelical six-year old, calls the postman “nigger”. The story ably examines one problem while acknowledging that there remains a solar system, maybe even galaxy, of problems. But focusing on this problem first, searching for a solution, and maybe finding one, means an opportunity to think about and possibly face the next one. It’s the collection’s finest and most complete piece.
Clarke’s desire in Foreign Soil is to give a voice to the refugee, the immigrant, the marginalized youth – in other words, to the voiceless – and hope the reader can’t look away. When she gets it right, Clarke is a good problem to have.
“Y’know what I read the other day? I read that all we leave is memory. I read it on the back of a demolition company truck as it cut me off on Cabramatta Road.” This quote from the first page of the first story in Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man is useful in summing up Carman’s project. The cadence and tone of the stories is poetic and assured, and combines the offbeat with the insightful for lively, Beat-ish existential musings. The protagonist of each story, Luke Francis Carman, grapples with ideas and experiences that he has lived or read or been taught and ultimately being uncertain about the meaning of any of it.
The source of this cultural schizophrenia can be found in the story ‘In Granville’. For Christmas, his father gives him an audiobook of Greek myths and inside the cover he writes: “Live like a man between Sparta and Athens: Strong of body, strong of mind.” The advice and cultural artifact are pressed on Luke by a man who sees no problem in bringing a trembling puppy in his pocket to midnight mass and telling people he is Italian when he’s not.
Like Clarke’s Foreign Soil, a portion of the stories are either written in an informal, sing-songy rhythm of suburban slang, or the dialogue is rendered that way. But Carman’s stories are all portraits of life in Sydney’s west, the domain of the blue collar worker, the uncouth, the bogan. Incidentally, it is a place that some of the characters Clarke writes about are, if moved to reality, likely to end up, a place that the moment any sort of election is announced, you can expect politicians to pop up in recreation halls, to kiss stupefied babies, to walk factory floors wearing hard-hats. It is also a place where the people already living there are likely to be hostile to these newcomers. From ‘1970’: “Lakemba mosque. Y’know they’ve got a whole stockpile of weapons under the ground? The cops know. They all tell me but you know how it is: nobody can do anything. These days it’s up to us, regular people like you and me mate; people who aren’t gutless.”
An Elegant Young Man is published by Giramondo, a press run out of the University of Western Sydney and with a reputation for their willingness to publish the literary (Gerald Murnane and Alexis Wright are both published by Giramondo). Their sales-are-small-but-fuck-it attitude makes them Australia’s pre-eminent publishers of, if we’re still dealing in such terms, the highbrow and avant-garde.
The stories in An Elegant Young Man snake through Luke’s youth, from school days and staying with his father, to moving from Western Sydney to the city’s Inner West. “It’s a relief though,” Carman writes in ‘Whitman and The Whitlam Centre’, “all that pap happened to someone else in some other country and we get to move on.” These stories are where place and lives meet, as well as the high and the lowbrow. But that they intersect here doesn’t mean they have any real impact. Political and social turns the country takes during the period go unexamined; Clarke hauls it out for the reader to either skewer or release, while for Carman’s characters, politics is something that happens over there, beyond the post, on the other side of the hill. Race riots that took place in Sydney’s coastal south in 2005 are also mentioned only obliquely, as are the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. However, these events and those not directly affecting Luke and the community he lives in are of little consequence. They are simply events. Carman’s stories therefore ask the question, What more can they be to these people in this part of the world? The part of the world in question ostensibly being civilized but really, if we are to let Carman be our guide, a place that is neglected, lawless, where hope has been abandoned – something which the book’s cover, a darkened road with streetlight and lines glowing orange neon, hints to.
Let’s ask the question again: if they are of no consequence, then what? Life in Carman’s Western Sydney is hollow, pathetic, sad. The people are dumb; when Luke and his friends are smoking dope at a park across the road a Buddhist temple, Fat Aaron says, “Have you ever gone up and looked at that temple before? It’s trippy shit, bro. There’s all these golden horns stickin’ off the roof and dragons on the walls and shit. It’s like, how the fuck did those cunts get so detailed aye? Imagine if we built our houses like they do, how fucking hectic would that be?” And yet, when Luke leaves the west behind and moves to a burgeoning Inner West, absurdity has been replaced by banality. In the following stories, Luke leaves his new home and returns again and again to the west, to help his mother move or for a friend’s house party, or in memory. In ‘West Suburbia Boys’, Luke meets Brent who, as a youth, made a mixture of napalm and burnt a poem in a hillside for the benefit of a young girl. Luke becomes obsessed with Brent, who is also from the west. “Listen, Brent,” the police officer who arrives on the scene of the poem-branded hill says, “fuck your ideas about poetry, mate. All you need is a job. Go out and find that, and you’ll be okay, okay dickhead?” Here in Sydney’s Inner West, they are misfits, exiles. But Luke understands Brent’s behavior, even admires it.
The west, it turns out, is more alive.
The short story is short. It’s not quite Lydia Davis-esque, but in the collection, Captives, Angela Meyer attempts to take this idea to its extreme; Captives can be read from cover to cover on the return leg of a work commute, or in a long wait for the doctor. As if to emphasize the function of the short story, and its portability, the book itself is pocket-sized, maybe in the hope that readers will carry it with them, talisman-like, warding off the temptation to take up the smart phone and check into social media.
The small, stylish volume is the second book to be released by publishing house Inkerman & Blunt. Their first publication was a collection of Australian love poems, which even they are likely to admit is a conservative way to launch. Meyer, also, is something of a safe choice – she is best known locally as a critic and festival panelist, so arrives with the beginnings of a reputation. In her fiction here, she takes the monolithic Kafka as her inspiration, figuratively, but also by using as the collection’s artwork an appropriation of doodles from Kafka’s notebooks. Like Clarke’s invocation of Achebe at the opening of Foreign Soil, it’s a bold way to begin.
The development of the stories in Captives follows a curious trajectory. There is something of the joke to orthodox flash fiction: the skeleton of a narrative, the sprinkling of detail (which, in turn, both crystallizes and makes it vague enough to be transportable), and the reliance on a pivot in the narrative at the story’s end to drop something satisfying into the reader’s lap – Captives begins with this idea of short, short fiction and, for a time, rarely deviates from it. From ‘Foreign bodies’: “Some of the women bulked up, others used a belittling wit, but Kate asserted her superiority the day she swallowed a small paintbrush during our art therapy class.” From the end of ‘A cage went in search of a bird’, a story about a girl’s kidnapping of a younger boy: “I just think about the boy and how unfair it is that others won’t understand what we both know is true: that he belongs to me, that he is my own.”
But the deeper into the collection the reader goes, the more the stories begin to open up, looking less like something familiar, and taking on the shape of the unexpected. ‘A bag of wool’ lists out accidental deaths from the 1860 and 1861 Inverness Adviser. The story ends with: “I’ll admit I search for [death], sometimes leaning back to let it take hold, so I might know how to live on.” Its liveliness and mystery comes from the story reading less like fiction, and flash fiction at that, and more like a diary entry. ‘I can hear music’ details the narrator’s musings prompted by a man in an electric wheelchair blasting Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’, linking the wheelchair with the Mars Rover. “Around the time Bettie Page became a born-again Christian, people feared Martians would invade the earth. Now we are merely looking for evidence of water.”
As is the case in the work, short and long, of Kafka, Meyer’s stories are most interesting when they don’t rely on any sort of formula, the reason being simply that they most authentically represent Meyer’s view of the world. In her best pieces, the reader passes through a scene or a moment like a ghost.
The collection’s strongest piece is the sole story with an epigraph, and is among its most succinct. ‘Only the strings and its supports remain’ is, apart from the epigraph, a quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a single paragraph, and details the reading, and prior slicing up, of Calvino’s brain. “I’m going to a session on it at the festival. Will you come?” the reader is asked. For a certain kind of reader, the offer to “read” Calvino’s filleted brain is a hard one to refuse.
What Captives becomes, then, is Meyer’s maturation as a writer, collected. The collection has chapters or sections that group and further narrow the focus of the stories contained in each. But ‘Only the strings and its supports remain’, the collection’s penultimate piece, bears little resemblance to the stories with which it begins. Meyer, by the book’s end, is a different writer to the one she was at its start. This editorial decision therefore seems to act as a presage of what the reader can expect next. Maybe this thought – of next time – is inherent in the debut and cannot be shaken off. Humans are an optimistic bunch: we do not think in one and onlys.
I want to return to a point that has been recurring since the introduction which is in need of interrogation. Each of these books is the debut work of fiction by a young Australian author; why are they all short fiction collections? Why not a novel? Are they an accumulation, the product of an apprenticeship? Is the short story experiencing a renaissance, in Australia at least, the perfect size to slot into time-poor days of atomized lives? Or is it symptomatic of a crowded but insular literary journal scene specializing in short fiction, as well as presses both big and small willing to publish these things?
That they’re all short story collections is not a coincidence, and the reasons could be all and none of the above. Australian publishers have seemingly decided that the short story collection is how they will introduce a new author – novels by debutants are still published, but in the sample reviewed here it’s three from three. It’s true that the short story collection still manages a reputation of being hip and is marketed as being by authors with not just one thing to say but many things (some Australian publishers, Giramondo included, have made a genuine commitment to championing the short form, including the novella). But if every press is publishing short fiction collections – and as an introduction to a writer, as an entrée to a main that may never come – then they’re not shrugging off the norm, they’re perpetuating it. Something is not avant-garde, or even risky, if everybody is doing it. Books released by Hatchette Australia, publishers of Foreign Soil, come with a guarantee: “books you’ll love or your money back!” Short story collections, it is clear, have become safe.
It matters that these are all short story collections. The collection was formerly a publishing liability. The international success of short fiction writers, primarily those from the US in Saunders and Munro, but also locally in the success of The Boat by Nam Le, is likely also to be an influence in easing fears of publishing flops. But that publishing houses now have little faith in the author to publish a longer work first, if at all, or in readers to read them, is sad. Hoping that a short story collection creates the hype a follow-up novel is perceived to demand, if that indeed is what is happening, is dangerous territory to be in.
If I may continue to be so bold as to view three disparate writers as representative of a larger, complete whole, our young authors are politically engaged – even politically motivated – and they have a desire to preserve in fiction stories that would either circulate in whispers or behind doors, or go if not completely untold then forgotten. Whether it’s Southern USA, a refugee boat on the plain of the open sea, Western Sydney, the Scottish Highlands, or a Baltimore basement, these are voices from the fringes. That these authors are writing about related themes is indicative of the issues this generation are facing and attempting to deal with, and should not be ignored. Maxine Beneba Clarke and Luke Carman could almost be in dialogue.
But it is peculiar that while Clarke and Carman especially pose the question, Where to now?, neither of them truly demand an answer back. They all, in one way or another, act as mouthpieces – Clarke for the exiled in search of a new home, Carman for the cultural exile, Meyer for the stuck. There is a risk of acting as mouthpieces at the expense of artfulness.
Which is quite possibly okay. The stories in all three collections deserve to be told, not only to those reading in Australia but beyond – they have something unique to say from and occasionally about the country of their origin that maybe also touches on something larger. And I am intrigued to see what Clarke, Carman, and Meyer come up with next.