Forever Young is a suitably ironic title for a book about growing inexorably away from our earlier selves. Its cover image of an old tree, gnarled and blasted sideways by prevailing winds, suggests as much: actually we are forever ageing, leaning into the future, shedding the days like leaves.
And there is a distinctly autumnal air to this, the fifth and penultimate novel of what has become known as the Glenroy sequence (while each title can be read as a stand-alone fiction, there is a cumulative gain to those familiar with its full sprawl). Where a work such as The Art of the Engine Driver – in terms of publication date and internal chronology, the first of the series – often seemed to view the past with a dark, honeyed nostalgia, Forever Young’s retrospections have a more bitter taste.
What has not changed is Carroll’s tendency to locate his narratives at points where the personal and the political intersect. The time is 1977, and Australia is still reeling from the drama of the Dismissal. Whitlam is headed into his last federal election wearing (as Rita, mother of our central character Michael, puts it) “going away eyes”. That brief window of optimism and radical social change is set to harden into something more adult, certainly, but also less generous. The smeary idealism of the young baby boomers is set to give way to the brute calculus of the neoliberal age.
Michael, whom we first met as a young boy growing up in Glenroy, in Melbourne’s suburban hinterland, is now in his early 30s – the cusp of middle age. He meets the larger national moment with melancholy resignation, putting away childish things – a beloved guitar, the band he used to play it in, a longstanding “casual” girlfriend – and ponders a sojourn overseas.
Yet one of these decisions is best regarded as Michael’s last act of immaturity, an unconscious admission that he has long had “a lock on his heart” he has zealously guarded since childhood. Dumping his girlfriend, Mandy, does not go as planned: she is broken by the news, and too late he realises feelings for her, after all.
This is the sad knowledge he carries through Melbourne’s streets, haunting the sites of youthful happiness: a lap of defeat that brings him back into contact with Peter, a close friend from his student days who went to Canberra and became a political fixer with a whiff of brimstone about him. One strand of the novel follows Peter’s efforts to plant a false story about Whitlam with a fading female journalist. It does the job, but has a tragic side effect, the fallout of which envelops each of the novel’s characters.
Carroll has a twitch for narrative coincidence that he fully indulges here. And yet his touch is so feather-light that such instances rarely feel contrived. In his wonderful, glancing portrait of two friends grown in different directions, the author reminds us of our ongoing entanglement as social particles.
So it is that the novel can range as far as Italy, where an ageing Australian artist, a solitary exile of the Angry Penguins era, happens across Rita, Michael’s mother, travelling on a package tour, and is reminded of the portrait he once painted of her husband’s aunt, an elderly eccentric who lived in a tent on the city’s outskirts (and the subject of another novel in the sequence).
A twitch upon the thread, in other words, and the characters are returned to the city that grew up around them and formed them as it did so. As a psychogeographer of postwar Melbourne, Carroll is always fascinating. He has a way of embedding living stories in the fabric of the city and then binding them together. This braiding of culture, nature and built environment lends the growing metropolis warm character, while making his human subjects part of a larger web of urban relation. We are, Carroll implies over and over, greater than the sum of our individual parts.
Carroll shares with fellow Australian writers Ashley Hay and Joan London the ability to manufacture drama from the frailest incident. And like them he grants such events a peculiar quality – for lack of a better word, call it grace – through his attention. His sentences can be so lovely that they threaten to bypass the minor moments of loss and regret they describe. When the painter Art is gifted a small package of gum leaves and throws them on the fire in his Italian studio, he is transported to the country he left decades before:
The smell of the leaves conjured up a place and time, and with that came an aching desire he chose to call nostalgia. But what if that wasn’t it? Or, rather, what if the feeling needs to be redefined. And is nostalgia not so much a longing for a place or time as a longing for youth itself? Home merely the place where youth is played out, and where, on that inevitable day of departure, it is left. All destined to be consigned to the distant past.
“Until,” he concludes, “somebody uncorks the magic potion that brings it all back.” For Art, that potion is painting. For years he has rendered on canvas images of those early years in Melbourne, “re-creating the sunken city” of his youth, “so that if it were ever to be rebuilt as it was, it could all be done from his paintings.”
When we last glimpse Michael, he is also installed in an old-world garret. His desk is prepared for the writing of stories that will do something similar to Art – something like the Glenroy sequence, perhaps.
It is here, in the closing moments of the novel, that Carroll finally merges with his fictional creation. Hasn’t he, too, been engaged over 15 years and five novels with excavating the sunken city of youth? Is the artist, like some lesser deity, not a creator of worlds? A god of small things? AF
HarperCollins, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 13, 2015 as "Steven Carroll, Forever Young". Subscribe here.