Despite boasting a population of 2 million people – more than South Australia, the Northern Territory, Tasmania and the ACT combined – Western Sydney has, to date, had little impact on the literary pulse of the nation. That changed in 2014.
Alongside the brouhaha that greeted an Australian victory in the Booker Prize for Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 2014 might well be remembered as marking the arrival of Western Sydney within the Australian literary imagination.
Two novels serve to characterise this important moment in Australian culture – Luke Carmen’s An Elegant Young Man and Felicity Castagna’s The Incredible Here and Now. Both books deploy a naturalistic style in order to perceive life in the suburbs from the perspective of those who live and work there.
They both are also interested in youth culture. Carman’s “young man” is an early 20-something from Liverpool with an acerbic tongue and a voracious reading habit, while Castagna’s book is narrated by Michael, a 15-year old boy from Parramatta who is grieving over the death of his older brother, whom he idolised.
Both books created a stir within the broader Australian literary community in 2014.
An Elegant Young Man was shortlisted for both the Readings New Writing Award and the ALS Gold Medal, and Carman was named by the Sydney Morning Herald as the country’s Best Young Novelist (2014). Similarly successful, The Incredible Here and Now won for Castagna the Prime Minister’s Literary Award (Young Adult Fiction) and the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year award.
A cynic might read this success as an act of political correctness on the part of a middle-class literary establishment – a patronising pat on the back for a couple of made-good young people, blown in from the suburbs.
In fact, such politics are themselves taken to task in An Elegant Young Man: the narrator ridicules the pomposity of the Sydney Writer’s Festival before concluding, after Kerouac, that Australia is “not a place for ecstatic truth”. Castagna’s book is also aware of the currents of cultural stigma against which it has to paddle. The book’s opening line reads:
Some people say “West” like it is something wrong, like ice-cream that fell in a gutter.
Beyond the recognition of these previously unheard voices, the success of both books can be attributed to the stylistic bravura with which both of these writers approach their subject matter.
Set in the suburban badlands of Western Sydney, An Elegant Young Man takes readers inside the exuberant, sometimes violent, sometimes frightening, underbelly of the Australian multi-cultural experiment. In this world of “Fobs”, “Lebos”, and “bogans”, the book confronts everything from the 9-11 attacks on America, to the politics of race and the predicament of modern Australia.
Beyond simply a finely honed naturalism, An Elegant Young Man draws deeply on the history of the novel as a literary form. The playful fusion of narrator and author – our guide is called “Luke Carman” – exemplifies the kind of postmodern meta-fiction that the likes of Kurt Vonnegut, John Fowles and Paul Auster popularised in the latter half of the 20th century.
Carman’s novel also bears the hallmarks of the classic picaresque tale, dating back to the 16th century, in which a roguish hero (“picaro” being the Spanish for “rascal”) of lowly origins offers a satirical take on the contemporary society in which he finds himself.
It is these sophisticated literary effects that allowed The Australian’s Geordie Williamson to describe the book as, “bringing a vast suburban emptiness to brilliant life”. Madeleine Watt in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that this style is nothing less than “street poetry for contemporary Australia”.
Written in a series of 80 vignettes, The Incredible Here and Now deploys the voice of a teenage narrator in order to make strange the Parramatta landscape through which the book’s characters glide.
Castagna’s astute ear for the local idiom situates the book in a long tradition of immigrant childhood narratives, stretching all the way back to Henry Roth’s landmark text of American Jewish diaspora, Call it Sleep (1934). It is as a story of a boy on the cusp of adulthood, with all that entails, where Castagna’s novel is at its most powerful and moving.
Alongside Carman and Castagna, 2014 saw the publication of a succession of novels by migrant voices within Australia – Omar Musa’s Here Come the Dogs, Tamar Chnorhokian’s The Diet Starts on Monday and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil.
Taken together, these texts offer a radical challenge to the cynicism of Luke Carman’s narrator: perhaps Australia might be a place for ecstatic truth after all.