Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers
by Ryan O’Neill (2016)
Lightning Books (2018)
288 pp

Eye Books is a small, independent publisher, “founded in 1996 with the aim of publishing books about the extraordinary things ordinary people have done: people who decide to stop talking about their dreams and actually go out and grab them,” and Lightning Press is their much newer fiction imprint.

Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers won the Australian PM’s Award for Fiction, and Lightning Press have now brought this wonderful book to an international audience.

The premise, as the title suggests, is sixteen biographies of important Australian writers over the last 150 years. Presented ostensibly as non-fiction, the book is in fact satirical.

The first author featured is Rand Washington, the pulp science-fiction writer, overt racist, and possible murderer (anyone standing in the way of his career usually meets an oddly convenient — for Rand Washington — end). He first hones his craft as a disciple of H.P. Lovecroft, who gives him some helpful feedback, “As well as advising the boy to buy a dictionary and thesaurus, Lovecraft warned him that filling his stories with extremist views on race could, as Lovecraft knew from personal experience, alienate editors.”

Next we have Matilda Young, the “Whinging Matilda” whose poetry is constantly frustrated by the patriarchy, starting, in her childhood, with her step father. After confiscating her paper and ink, and then foiling her attempts to write with berry juice on her wallpaper, followed by tea-leaves and vinegar on the wooden slats of her mattress, he catches her sharpening a knife, proclaiming that she will resort to the only liquid left to her, blood. Laughing, he dares her to cut herself, to be met with the retort: “It’s not my blood I’m going to use.” And decades later, when she attains international, but not domestic, acclaim and wins the Nobel Prize, the only coverage in the Australian press is in a local paper: “Sydney housewife wins writing competition.”

Then we have Arthur Ruthra, founder of the breakaway Kangaroulipo after he falls out with the official Oulipan movement in Paris, who attempts increasingly bizarre experiments such as typing his Repression: A Novel Written Under Constraint entirely with his nose. He eventually dies, of taking too much ecstasy, in a calculated snub to his rival George Perec, who obviously can’t conceive how anyone can overdose on Es. “Poor Arthur. The only constraint he couldn’t overcome was his lack of talent,” Perec writes to Italo Calvino.

If sixteen similar but separate sketches was all the book amounted to it would still be a very amusing read, albeit one might argue Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas had already done something similar. But there is pathos amongst the humor, and there are some ultimately important points to be made about the self-importance and chauvinism of the literary scene. The issue of sexism is addressed in a number of stories, but while racism is also tackled, none of the writers featured, apart from one literary critic featured on a couple of pages, are themselves indigenous, perhaps because O’Neill didn’t want to parody this part of the culture (but see below regarding the index).

Many of the stories and characters are rooted in real-life figures — there is a reason most of the authors featured are dead. There is a lot that no doubt escaped me and would be more obvious to those with knowledge of the 20th Century Australian literary scene, but the real-life Ern Malley hoax is given a further, wonderfully Borgesian, twist in O’Neill’s book, and one character, Addison Tiller, is based on Steele Rudd and the Dad and Dave characters he created but came to despise in their popularized radio incarnations.

The story builds as the lives of the sixteen authors, plus those of a host of other characters (publishers, proof readers, academics), cross into each other to make a complex story and one with plot twists and revelations. Perhaps the best story of all is saved for last, the brief biography of Sydney Steele, anecdotes about whom feature throughout the stories of the other fifteen, but whose literary output had the longevity of a Spinal Tap drummer.

The stories become so entangled that the reader is at times thankful for the helpful index provided at the end, contributed, we’re told, by O’Neill’s troubled, and now recently deceased, wife.

And here we see another dimension as the intertextuality and playfulness extends to the book itself. The “By the Same Author Page” includes O’Neill’s real-life fiction, The Weight of a Human Heart: Stories, but also the entirely fictitious non-fiction works: Ordinary People Doing Everyday Things in Commonplace Settings: A History of the Australian Short Story and The Sacred Kangaroos: Fifty Overrated Australian Novels, as well as two biographies of the authors in this book.

The acknowledgements at the end are also part of the story, describing his altercation with Tim Winton after Ordinary People Doing Everyday Things in Commonplace Settings failed to win the Pennington Prize for non-fiction (a prize named after one of the fictitious authors in the book and from a shortlist comprising others). One wonders if the altercation was perhaps prompted by the blurbs quoted on the website of the Kanganoulipo movement for O’Neill’s previous novel:

His fiction has been described as “refreshing, funny, devastating” (Megan Mayhew Bergman) “acerbic, playful and serious” (Cate Kennedy) and “Stop harassing me, I will never give you a blurb, you desperate hack” (Tim Winton).

And in a real-life twist, having named the book in tribute to Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Careers, the book went on to be shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize.

O’Neill has acknowledged the potential overlap with Nazi Literature in the Americas both in the novel, where the fictional O’Neill lists Bolaño’s book as a factual source, and in interviews by the real-life O’Neill:

I heard about Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas which explored a similar form, of biographies of fictional fascist Latin American writers. Before beginning my book, I decided to read Bolaño’s in order to see if my ideas were too similar to his. Fortunately, Bolaño had done different things in his book than I intended to do in mine, and relieved, I continued to mull over my book in a vague way.

Pale Fire is also a clear inspiration, and O’Neill has named Nabakov as his favorite writer, which in the novel he twists to have Nabakov take his inspiration from one of his authors, Peter ‘Pin’ Darkbloom.

And the index itself, assembled one recalls ostensibly by his troubled and now deceased wife, is also part of the novel, and repays close reading. Buried among the other entries are:

shoddy research 4–7, 37–41, 94–101, 154–9, 183–94, 209–18

indigenous writers, lack of 1–176, 179–259 [see my comments above]

of Roberto Bolaño 154–6, 158, 161

and indeed the very last entry of all, the last words in the whole book, provides the final, albeit rather well-telegraphed, revelation in the plot.

A truly memorable read, one that deserved the prize recognition it achieved in Australia and one I hope to see get similar recognition elsewhere.

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