Luke Carman, you ask? I imagine him up there on his mountain at the end of the line where it’s always the proverbial dark and stormy night, languishing in a monkish cell, tap, tap, tapping away at a block of old acrimony as he dreams up his revenges.
Intimate Antipathies, his second book, is a collection of essays about writing and the writing life. And, well, it’s hard to imagine there’s ever been such a parcel of sour plaints, outrageous caricatures and toe-curling confessions in the whole sorrowful history of Australian letters.
It opens, after a shattering little prelude, with an edited version of the already too-much-discussed and too-much-explained “Getting Square in a Jerking Circle”, in which Carman chastises Melbourne’s literary “mobsters”, whose heedless and desperate quest for influence leads them to trample on genuine “word-nerds”. The hyperbolic pique of this essay recalls the festering rancour of Dostoyevsky’s underground man, that creature of everlasting grudges. Come to think of it, wasn’t the narrator of Carman’s debut novel – who also had the ill luck to be called Luke Carman – rather keen on that early Dostoyevskian diatribe?
The pose of the humiliated man offering ironic commentaries on the hypocrisies of others is repeated in most of the essays collected here. Carman is always getting square with someone. His deadpan lampoon of the writer Michael Mohammed Ahmed, who he describes as the leader of a predatory cult of personality, is only the most brazen example.
But Carman is theatrical in a way that would make even Dostoyevsky blush. A trip to Byron Bay is all done up as a Gothic romance. His fictionalised account of a residency in Wollongong has muffled echoes of Poe. And an otherwise poignant essay on his relationship with his son gets the dubious benefit of a Stephen King-like digression involving locusts.
These histrionics are interesting enough and occasionally compelling in their absurdity, but Carman needs more rigour in his magnified vaunting of bitterness. His prose too often drifts into enervated waffle and the reader is forever stumbling over some verbal infelicity or other. These lapses diminish the impact of his mordant critique, which is why an essay such as “Getting Square” can leave so many people wondering what the joke is. The upshot is that Intimate Antipathies comes off as rather more dead than deadly.
Giramondo, 240pp, $24.95
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 15, 2019 as "Luke Carman, Intimate Antipathies". Subscribe here.