Intimate Antipathies by Luke Carman is an essay collection that explores the writing life, literary culture, imagination, mental illness, relationships and family. Carman is best known for his semi-autobiographical debut work, An Elegant Young Man (2013), for which he was named a Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Novelist.
These essays, while concerned largely with cultural critique, also find inspiration, revelation and beauty in the everyday. The tensions of early parenthood and marriage, and the processes involved in seeking psychological health, are all rendered in a way that grasps for the existential dimensions of these experiences. There is also a sense of these essays being psychogeographical studies, exploring how identity is shaped as much by geography as by experience and relationships. As readers, we are given a strong sense of setting, and for those familiar with Sydney’s inner and outer West, and the Blue Mountains, there will be many recognisable details of place.
There is certainly an intimate quality to these pieces, and a self-depreciating humour which softens the essays when they cross over into mockery of others. Carman is known for his verbose style, and there are strokes of grandiosity across these essays which enrichen their comic value, even if at times the wordy nature of the writing gets a little in the way of content. What’s lacking at points, however, is a deep examination of the author’s own locus, in particular his own cultural coordinates in relation to various positions of privilege.
In An Intimate Antipathy, Carman describes his lived experience of mental illness, or as he puts it, the point at which he made the “…transition from ordinary, everyday madness into genuine lunacy.” This essay is a rich and detailed analysis of the day in which a paranoid delusion took hold of Carman as he was driving home, and the discoveries he made about himself in this process. However, when his diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder is explored later on in The Whistleblower’s Lament, there seems to be untapped potential for deeper meaning-making. In particular, it could have been interesting to read more of Carman’s own analysis of this diagnosis – how it might (or might not) connect with his perspective as a writer, and how his experiences of mental ill-health are particular to his identity as a man and a white person.
The essay The Cult of Western Sydney ends with a revelation that Carman was ejected from a Western Sydney writing organisation due to being declared, in the author’s own words, “a racist white supremacist”. This essay explores the dynamics of that collective in a way that guides the reader to conclude this label is due to insider/outsider politics. But there is a hint of sour grapes here, and a lost opportunity to dig deeper into cultural politics. The author could have explored the experience in a way that acknowledged and examined how his own privilege might have come into play. Given the recurring reminders of Carman’s identity as a writer of Sydney’s Western suburbs – in A Northern Rivers Romance, we are reminded frequently that he is sitting in an office in Bankstown – and the cultural politics of this region, this stands out as somewhat of an oversight. Carman seems happy to claim his identity in relation to class, mental health status and geographical coordinates, but evades issues of race and gender.
Perhaps what is needed in the more personal essays, particularly those that deal with Carman’s relationships to others and his mental illness, is simply more time. A more distant vantage point from which to write might have helped extract a more crystallised meaning. Alternatively, perhaps a negation of meaning at these points in the narrative is entirely Carman’s point. But for those who prefer essays that problematise the issues they raise, these essays could have a sense of something lacking.
A collection of essays moored to the notion of antipathy could be a heavy read, but there is a great deal of humour here, and to enjoy these essays most is to appreciate Carman’s comic sense. This writing is at times very intimate and revealing, and Carman conveys a certain vulnerability in narrating autobiographical details that writers might often censor due to shame or embarrassment.
At their most interesting, these essays explore the liminal space between writing and the real world, and how the imaginary world evoked in the acts of writing and reading is somewhat like a dream. In its entirety, this collection tells a story of how the process of narrative-making is inevitably woven into the tapestry of everyday life, in our thinking and dreaming and meaning-making, and how it can at times serve to keep us well and whole.
Tess Pearson’s poetry and prose can be found in Southerly, Cordite, Rabbit, and Scum Mag, as well as a number of anthologies. Tess is a Varuna alumni, was winner of the 2017 NWF/SW joanne burns Microlit Award, a participant in the 2018 Hardcopy Program, and second runner-up in the 2019 TLB/RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Nonfiction. She lives on Gadigal land.