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