Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O'Neill
In Their Brilliant Careers, Ryan O’Neill combines conventions of biography and short story in an exhaustively brazen blend of Australian literary history and plausible yet gloriously bonkers invention. Each of these connected stories is a mini-biography of an imaginary Australian literary figure that has been, purportedly, under-celebrated or forgotten. O’Neill has added an entirely new dimension to the existing literary landscape and woven his characters through one another’s stories.
O’Neill details the absurdities of human endeavour and ambition; he spares no-one, least of all himself. Readers will be amused by the fabricated antics of thinly disguised versions of Australian literary figures, and will recognise other names where reality and imagination intersect. While the intensely intertextual nature of this collection will reward the well-read, the stories also work as tight, standalone comic pieces in their own right. Readers less interested in the dissection of reference and fact from fiction will enjoy these stories for their satire, vivid characters and galloping plots.
O’Neill’s parodies of sacred works and traditions within Australian literature – from seminal voices of the bush who have never been further afield than Sydney, to digs such as ‘ruhtrA’s attack achieved the near impossible: it united the poetry world, against him.’ – are hilarious. It’s impossible to even think of several of these parodic works without laughing out loud (most notably anything relating to the excruciating success of Pa and Pete). One cannot help suspecting that in the biography of Rachel Deverall, O’Neill referred to the likely experience of readers of his own work when he wrote: ‘Despite her fatigue, Deverall stayed up all night to finish the story. It was well written and entertaining, stuffed with unbelievable incidents and action, and without a doubt the most derivative book she had ever read.’
Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.