Carman, Luke. An Ordinary Ecstasy. Penrith: Giramondo Publishing Company, 2022. RRP: $29.95, 256pp, ISBN: 9781922725240.
It’s a sweet sigh of relief to see the world as I know it captured and translated in the words of someone else; to see shape given to the feelings I’ve been holding; to have the secret thoughts I hold close absolved by the waters of someone else’s stream of consciousness. It’s reassurance, brought about by a dissociated connection across time and place, that I’m not alone—someone else is seeing in the same colours.
I was delighted to find that connection when reading Luke Carman’s An Ordinary Ecstasy. This collection of seven short stories follows Carman’s successes with his prize-winning debut fiction, An Elegant Young Man (2014). Each narrative in his disarming and pensive new collection explores the inherent anxiety and tension in the daily life of its protagonists as they move through various spaces in the Australian social landscape. But An Ordinary Ecstasy, as the title suggests, delves under the surface of the quotidian to position ‘ordinary’ experience—if such a thing can be said to exist—as something to be revered.
Carman doesn’t shy away from writing the uncomfortable. He delves into the occurrences in life that, in reality, many of us try to avoid contemplating—the expectations, experience and consequences of toxic masculinity in Australian culture; the seeming impossibility of meaningful communication in a time marred by ‘recursive images, dimmed by obsessive use’ (55); the wilful ignorance of a relationship’s demise; the disconnect felt by older white Australians in a society developing rapidly and ostensibly leaving them behind.
Throughout the collection Carman is fearless in representing these challenges with stark honesty, encouraging the reader to empathise with his characters, whose situations and perspectives often provoke discomfort and frustration. From the elderly Joseph, who wanders the streets of his neighbourhood endlessly narrating his vexations with time and memory in ‘A Beckoning Candle’, to Alice in ‘A Woman to Her Lover Clings’, and her complete inability to acknowledge the downfall of her relationship and her husband’s self-centred choices. She clings instead to grace, which she calls ‘an escape chute’, on which, she suggests ‘we can ride the chaos surrounding us unassailed’ (145).
Carmen’s characters can be exasperating. Joseph speaks for paragraphs at a time without pause, preaching opinions and offering winding recollections. Alice is infuriatingly submissive in her own life and relationships. But as their stories unfold, the thoughts, perceptions and memories of these characters are expressed with a vulnerability that demands the breakdown of the reader’s traditional position as external overseer. Rather than exterior to the narrative, we become intertwined in its exchange, and are asked in return only to read without judgement.
This reading brings empathy and recognition, of Joseph’s mourning for those he has lost, ‘[l]ike watching someone you love turned into a piece of furniture, for strangers to sit on’ (32), and of Alice, who is painfully aware that she is ‘standing on a stage, in a fulmination of light, and simultaneously sitting in the darkness beyond the stage, watching [her]self perform like some internal anthropologist’ (151)—no one is more frustrated by her incuriosity than she is. Both of these characters feel, for want of a better word, real: I have met many renditions of Joseph and I know too many versions of Alice. And while I am conscious I have spent too long talking of these two particular characters, I could do the same with any other character from the stories in this collection. I heartily encourage you to discover the others for yourself.
Though Carman’s characters are heavily flawed and wonderfully human, he has woven something pleasantly other into the ‘ordinary’ moments of his ‘ordinary’ people. This, with a cleverly subtle nod to Classical mythology, sees Carman’s characters take on more complex forms. ‘Tears on Main Street’, with its unnamed protagonist and his biblically titled guide, August Saint Augustine, captures a modern odyssey wrapped up in the package of a boys’ trip to Byron Bay. The two men set out together to fulfill their destinies against a past enemy, in what they perceive to be an act of epic heroism. But they find themselves wrestling with the challenges and tragedies that emerge, not from the will of the gods but from the socially constructed expectations of what it means to be a man. In ‘Sit Down Young Stranger’, Liam, a young musician on the brink of fame, travels to perform for a friend’s gallery opening. He mourns the loss of his previous relationship and seems to cross the boundaries between this world and another, like a modern Orpheus, desperately hoping to be reunited with his love.
This subtle blending of the everyday with the grandiosity of ancient classics serves not (just) to show off Carman’s abilities as a writer: it is a marriage of diverging forms that acknowledges the weight and value of the trials we face on a day-to-day basis. The collision of the frustrating, demoralising aspects of ‘ordinary’ experience with subtle themes and elements of Classical mythology is an acknowledgement that ‘there must be countless folks out in the quiet streets and in the silent houses, bearing their grief upon their backs, going on living’ (56, my emphasis). Carman upholds daily life (and the capacity to endure it) as something to be exalted for the marvel which it is; like the heroes and gods of epic poetry, the challenges of ordinariness are complex, captivating, heartbreaking, exhilarating and entirely worthy of being written about.
It feels impossible to come to a conclusion about this collection. It has stayed with me and continues to revolve in my mind months later, as I wander through the streets of my neighbourhood and contemplate the life of every person I pass (though the thoughts in my mind aren’t as beautifully narrated as Carman’s prose). It is hard to know if Carman has captured the world as I know it, or if my world has been tinted by the shades of his literary brush. Either way, I come away from reading An Ordinary Ecstasy with gratitude. These seven short stories are an act of veneration to the ordinary lives of its characters, and thus to the lives of us all—sometimes challenging, sometimes painful, often funny and always to be cherished.
Brooke Burke is working on telling people that she likes to write. She is in the midst of a Master’s degree in Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University, where she hopes to represent the experience of mental health through creative non-fiction. She aims to one day understand how to correctly use commas but, until then, will hold great pride in having conquered the mysteries of the possessive apostrophe.