Books

Ryan O’Neill
Their Brilliant Careers

Australian literature: overly earnest, derivative, desperate to be taken seriously. Discuss. Alternatively, here’s Ryan O’Neill. 

You have to admire O’Neill’s delicious bravura. He’s been one of the few short fiction writers of recent years willing to play around with the form’s possibilities, and he does so again here, in these 16 biographical vignettes of Australian writers who, although fictional, will strike chords of indignation in the hearts of those who would champion Oz lit irrespective of merit or talent.

Despite the dizzying array of references, you don’t need a PhD in literature to get the jokes. The profiled authors fall into recognisable archetypes – the racist, overblown populist science fiction giant Rand Washington (with echoes of L. Ron Hubbard); the reclusive, forgotten “genius” Helen Harkaway (possibly a swipe at Elizabeth Harrower?); the overzealous biographer Stephen Pennington; arch-egotist society maven Vivian Darkbloom; and poet Donald Chapman, a character whose fabricated existence burrows hilariously deep within the warring, petulant psyche of Australian poetry.

Satire is in criminally short supply in Australian letters, and O’Neill presses all the right buttons. The underrepresentation of women authors receives especially biting treatment. When Matilda Young becomes Australia’s first Nobel laureate, her achievement is celebrated on page 19 of the Western Sydney Advertiser under the headline “Sydney Housewife Wins Writing Competition”. Elsewhere, the industry almost goes under in the wake of Catherine Swan’s death, as it is discovered the entire bestseller list was written by her under a variety of ludicrous male pseudonyms.

Their Brilliant Careers resists dismissal as simply a series of amusing sketches. Apart from the fact there are more funny lines in O’Neill’s 288 pages than there are likely to be in the entirety of Australian literature elsewhere this year, the profiles are woven smartly together, as the characters’ fates and careers intertwine. The book also contains many self-deprecating Easter eggs, hidden within the index, contents and elsewhere. Personal favourites are O’Neill’s supposed other works Ordinary People Doing Everyday Things in Commonplace Settings: A History of Australian Short Fiction, and Sacred Kangaroos: Fifty Overrated Australian Novels. If Ryan O’Neill didn’t exist, someone would have to invent him.  JD

Black Inc, 288pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "Ryan O’Neill, Their Brilliant Careers ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JD

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