Reviewed: Luke Carman, Intimate Antipathies, Giramondo, 2019
Early into his new essay collection Intimate Antipathies, the follow-up to his NSW Premier’s Award–winning An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman shares Gore Vidal’s theory on the two kinds of writer. The first is the true wordsmith; obsessed with mastering the art of language, their passion lies not in what they write about but how they write it. The second is the writer whose chosen vocation is a kind of belated therapy; theirs is a feverish but ultimately futile endeavour not to conquer the written word but to utilise it in the vain hope of overcoming some long-ago inflicted psychic damage.
Carman goes on to lay his own ‘unhappy soul’ quite bare throughout the book, but one still gets the sense Carman puts himself in the former category. By which I mean his writing can sometimes come across as conspicuously good: the sentences draw so much attention to themselves, they overshadow what they are trying to say. In describing the wordsmith’s relentless drive for perfection, for example, Carman has them living ‘in search of the flawless scene, a numinous sentence—they wander intoxicated by belief in a transcendental sublimity obscured behind the dead space of everyday speech’. How very meta.
One also senses that perhaps Carman is writing at an unfortunate time for the perspective of a straight white man. There was a time when white men didn’t so much dominate literature and publishing as completely own it. Thanks to iconic figures such as Vidal, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac—not to mention their many imitators—the writing of white men who could turn a clever phrase or two was de facto imbued with gravitas and the authors themselves with an aura of intrigue. Thanks in no small part to their much publicised alcoholism, substance abuse, womanising or a heady mix of all three.
Those days are—perhaps–—on the way out and the rise of non-white, non-male, queer and otherwise marginalised writers means that white men have to lean into more than their proximity to the great white geniuses of the past or their hard-living lifestyles to hold our interest. That white men, and to a lesser extent white women, increasingly cannot rely on their whiteness to stand out has resulted in resentment and outright hostility towards writers of colour, as encapsulated by author Lionel Shriver’s castigation of Penguin Random House. When the British-based publisher announced their intention to have a staff and a slate that reflects the diversity of the general population, Shriver scoffed in an op-ed:
[L]iterary excellence will be secondary to ticking all those ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual preference and crap-education boxes. We can safely infer … that if an agent submits a manuscript written by a gay transgender Caribbean who dropped out of school at seven and powers around town on a mobility scooter, it will be published, whether or not said manuscript is an incoherent, tedious, meandering and insensible pile of mixed-paper recycling. Good luck with that business model. Publishers may eschew standards, but readers will still have some.
Shriver can’t seem to entertain the idea that merit and diversity are not mutually exclusive. Nor can she contemplate the notion that many works by white writers may have been undeservedly published. This kind of cattiness exemplifies the entitled fury of those used to being at the centre who suddenly have to justify their own existence. It is a fury, as I will get to a little later, that Carman appears to share.
But first, in presenting his case as an author, Carman leans into his mental health issues. This is something he does—when he is not getting in his own way with unnecessarily ostentatious language—very well. The stand-out essay, ‘A Whistle-blower’s Lament’, describes his own position on the bipolar disorder spectrum in a way that anyone who has rued the amount of time they spend on social media compulsively tarnishing their own reputation will identify with. Think of, he explains:
Bipolar (1) as being the category to which the extreme cases of the condition belonged—those who suffered delusional manias in which they believed themselves to be Christ reincarnated, for instance—and … Bipolar (2) to be that category of sufferers whose mania finds them binging on eBay and engaging in twitter feuds that cost them their jobs.
He then situates himself somewhere in the middle.
Carmen provides an even-handed treatment of his own deluded state. Psychotic episodes, including one in which he became suddenly but deeply convinced that the man driving a green Camry behind him was going to murder him, are narrated in a detached style made possible only by the security of hindsight, and yet are deftly grounded in the illogical surety he felt amid the delusion. Informing his mother of his decision to kill himself on the irrational presumption that the driver and would-be killer would then have to spare his family, he recounts his frustration at her failure to understand the urgency. ‘It seemed she would not be reasonable, so I had to say goodbye to her and hang up, and keep my mind on the mission at hand.’
Carman is at his best in these moments when he isn’t either attempting to dazzle us with his command of language or using it to avenge lingering grievances. He is candid about less than dazzling admissions such as his lackadaisical parenting style, describing himself as ‘a body in the room’ while his son was growing up. But he does neither himself nor the reader any favours by constructing an extremely tough set-up to navigate.
In the short prelude, Carman represents himself as an unpleasant, vain, objectifying and rather cruel character. When a young drunk man clumsily attempts to mug him, Carman gains the upper hand and proceeds verbally to pummel the hapless wannabe thief until he is sobbing on the footpath. Of course, Carman is deliberately setting up his protagonist, a heightened version of himself, as an unlikeable one who is soon to be if not redeemed then at least somewhat exonerated by the coming revelations of his fragile mental health. This characterisation is repeated throughout the book and he sometimes comes across as a flat-out jerk, such as when he flirts with the idea of passing the time in a doctor’s waiting room by mocking another patient ‘simply to amuse myself at the old man’s expense’.
Although Carman does punch up occasionally, taking aim at literary orgs, festivals and panels in his notorious essay ‘Getting Square in a Jerking Circle’, he also throws sideways (at best) punches at poetry slams, curly hair (?!) and at other fledgling writers. Which brings me to the most deliberately contentious essay in the collection, the not-even-thinly-veiled swipe at a well-known ethnically diverse western Sydney writing collective.
In ‘The Cult of Western Sydney’ Carman attempts to excoriate the group. He doesn’t name it, but provides so many identifying details to render the omission little more than a defence against a potential defamation suit. Without informing his audience what exactly caused him to fall out with the collective, Carman exhibits that quintessential white Australian talent for talking about race despite never mentioning it. Though Carman uses the word ‘we’ liberally throughout the essay, it’s clear he never saw himself a part of the ‘cult’ and the entire exercise comes across as his own attempt to get square with that particular circle. It’s a cheap shot, and whatever the details that led to the fallout, it seems churlish at best and vindictive at worst to attempt to settle the score in a book that readers are expected to fork out good money for.
As Shriver warned, readers do have standards, and with the wealth of diverse competition for that hard-earned cash nowadays, spending it on what can sometimes read as a petulant quest for payback seems a big ask. •
Ruby Hamad is a journalist and PhD candidate at UNSW. She is the author of White Tears/Brown Scars, published in 2019 by MUP.