David Thomas Henry Wright reviews 'Their brilliant careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers' by Ryan O'Neill

David Thomas Henry Wright reviews 'Their brilliant careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers' by Ryan O'Neill

Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers

by Ryan O’Neill

Black Inc. $27.99 pb, 286 pp, 9781863958639

In the acknowledgments of Their Brilliant Careers, the author gives thanks to Roberto Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996), which 'provides essential background information for the life of Rand Washington'. Washington, a popular science fiction author with eugenist views, is just one of the eccentrics summarised in O'Neill's fictional compendium. Like Bolaño's book, Their Brilliant Careers draws bold zigzags through literary history, forging connections between real, imagined, intertextual, and metafictional events. It is a chocolate box of parodic Aussie portraits: some are bitter, some have gooey sentimental hearts, and some are just plain nuts.

Though not as astringent as Bolaño's fiction, Their Brilliant Careers nevertheless brims with crackerjack wit. Pressure is subtly built; punchlines are explosive. O'Neill takes his lead from the playful works of the literary group Oulipo, specifically Georges Perec, who even makes an appearance as a contemporary of Arthur ruhtrA, the Fremantle-born experimental writer and founder of 'Kangaroulipo'. Perec's Life: A user's manual (1978) uses self-imposed regulations to create an encyclopedic vision, incorporating a blank chapter to 'include' incompleteness. Their Brilliant Careers also employs restrictions that are then systematically adjusted or inverted.

O'Neill's book is interconnected in a way that tests believability, but so too are the real events into which its web entwines. Indeed, one of O'Neill's creations, Addison Tiller ('The Chekhov of Coolabah'), who almost single-handedly defines the Australian bush identity without ever actually leaving the city, suggests that Chekhovian realism has no business here. Yet one of the text's triumphs is its implication that even if literature is incapable of revealing truth, it is still a formidable force capable of producing seismic reverberations that echo throughout history. Whether they like it or not, O'Neill suggests, Australians are a product of their writing.

Published in August 2016, no. 383
David Wright

David Wright

David Thomas Henry Wright has been published in Southerly, Seizure, and the anthology Duo. He has a masters degree from The University of Edinburgh and has lectured at China's top university, Tsinghua, where he developed courses in Creative Writing and Australian Literature. His novella, Paige & Powe, was awarded Highly Commended in Seizure's Viva La Novella IV competition. He has presented at various conferences, where he has delivered papers on Italo Calvino, Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and J.M. Coetzee. He is currently a PhD candidate at Murdoch University and co-editor of Westerly: New Creative. His website is www.davidthomashenrywright.com

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.