Historical records can enliven our understanding of the past, but they also flatten it, leaving some people – often those marginalized because of their sexuality, gender, race – as blurred silhouettes on the fringes. In Jay Carmichael’s novel Marlo – set in 1950s Melbourne – he attempts a correction, infusing more attention to homosexuals demonized and criminalized as ‘sexual perverts’ in the annals of Australia’s past.
Carmichael’s popular debut album Ironbark was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award in 2016 – and was so skillfully written it made Christos Tsiolkas jealous. It was the sharp, shrewdly restrained story of a young gay man coming of age in a small country town, enduring heartbreak, an identity crisis, and unfulfilled desires. Similar themes populate the author’s second book, Marlo, which also centers on a young gay man, Christopher, who has uprooted himself from the “quiet pastures” of regional Victoria for the bustle of the city.
Christopher is a reserved and solitary character. His mother dead and his father absent, he is in search of belonging, even if he finds Melbourne hostile: “a space that was not intended for me”. He knows there are people like him, men with similar hungers – he reads about them in the newspaper: “Submitted by an anonymous witness. Arrested by the police. Accused of having committed an act of gross indecency between them.” In Marlo, true to Australia’s punitive past, homosexuality is not only illegal (in Victoria, sodomy was punishable by death until 1949; it remained a crime until 1981) but experienced as a “gross indecency”, a medical anomaly, something abominable.
Despite this, Christopher remains perpetually in search. He is introduced to the queer corners of the city and ventures into gardens where men have sex in the shadows – while avoiding those who will arrest or beat them for it. But it wasn’t until he met Morgan, a gay native, that he truly found “a connection in an otherwise alien landscape.” They begin a tentative relationship, and Marlo’s goal – and his enduring appeal – is the release and tightening of his tensions: of two men trying to create a sense of safety and normalcy for each other.
marlo is framed by real historical material: court excerpts and photographs populate the novel – albeit in a somewhat messy and dislocated way. More subtle and touching are the absences to which we are guided: the gaps in history, the records that never survived or perhaps weren’t written down. When Christopher burns his loving love letters to Morgan, fearing they are evidence of sodomy, he laments that “the only words left” of their lives would be those in newspaper headlines. He gets angry with her: “the words, the ink – the heavy ink – coated my tongue, clouded my eyes like cataracts.”
Yet Carmichael does not allow his lovers to succumb to tragedy, trauma, death – motifs of the “bury your gays” trope of queer characters. (The trend even predates the era of Marlo, when prohibitions on glorifying homosexuality in literature forced writers to demonize or kill off their gay characters.) tended to reinforce social stigma and gay misery. “. Christopher and Morgan face tribulations but they are not defined by them or sacrificed to them.
Carmichael’s prose achieves a seemingly ordinary but desirable quality in fiction: it is recognizable. Its restrained tempo resembles a sine wave – its rhythm oscillating, never dragging or rushing – while its imagery remains simple, clear: groups of people scattered across the lawn “like confetti”; seductive wink of a man “a lure trawling in deep water”. Too bad the author sometimes wavers in his confidence in the reader, exaggerating and stripping a sentence (when a character drags a cigarette, for example, we are told that “closed eyes suggested poise, while a long exhalation of white smoke a pure relief conveyed”). This can sometimes feel like reading by numbers.
There is also sometimes an air of hesitation. Morgan’s experience as a native gay man is treated with sensitivity, but we learn little about his family, culture, country, or language – as if Carmichael feared doing too much. The author addresses, lightly but effectively, the intersectional marginalities and ignorance of white society via the naivety of its protagonist. One of Marlo’s shrewdest lines of dialogue weaves together the seeming romance of their first encounter with the reality of the racial power dynamics of the time. As Morgan explains to Christopher, a Native would not lightly turn down a white man’s interest: “I didn’t expect to see you again, so you invited me to take the train home – and , well, I couldn’t say no.”
Carmichael’s control and poetic timbre are Marlo’s strengths, and there is undoubtedly influence here from the works of Tsiolkas and Patrick White. But compared to Ironbark, which flowed so viscerally and poignantly from the memoir, the novel feels less grounded, thinner (literally: Marlo is a thin read). It’s still touching. Carmichael writes that there is no “holistic account of the lived experiences” of gay men in the 1940s and 1950s: “Such lives are largely to be inferred.” So Marlo is a rebuke, disrupting archival stasis to revive two lovers – men who, in the story, may have been mere statistics. He succeeds.