If you enjoyed Gert Loveday’s Writing is Easy (see my review) you’ll probably enjoy Their Brilliant Careers.
The title is a satiric allusion to Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career but the brilliant careers in question are, as the blurb says, invented. There are sixteen chapter length biographies of Australian authors who never existed, but who apparently bear uncanny resemblance to well-known figures from the Australian books and publishing landscape. Ambition and ego are common threads in all of them. Part of the fun is working out whose brilliant, or not so brilliant career is being parodied.
The question is, therefore, is it enjoyable reading if the reader doesn’t know the ‘well-known figures.’ And is it a spoiler to identify the ones I do recognise?
I’m going to tread carefully and stick to a couple that I know are safely dead. The bio of the sci-fi author ‘Rand Washington’ made me think of prolific authors of pulp like Frank Clune and Ion Idress who were published by P R ‘Inky’ Stephensen, who was like the fictional Rand Washington, xenophobic and racist, and notorious for his political views which morphed from communism to the far-right. ‘Addison Tiller’, an upper-class English twit who wrote countless stories of bush life starting with ‘Hacking out the Homestead’ (featuring Pa and Pete) without ever venturing out of Sydney, is, I think, a parody of Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection starring Dad and Dave. (See my unimpressed review).
Fakery is also a common theme in other bios too. There is, as you’d expect, a riff on the Ern Malley hoax and there’s a droll story of a customs officer who purloined all the copies of significant works coming into the country and then made a comfortable career by rewriting them as his own (Ulysses/Odysseus and so on).
But I have to confess that even though I’m quite widely read in OzLit, there were some that seemed like an in-joke that I was missing. These ones I read for what they were: far-fetched nonsense parodying the kind of celebrity ‘dirt’ that trashy magazines offer. Some of them raised a chuckle, some of them were a bit flat.
That’s not the book’s fault: I obviously know less about the Australian literary scene than is necessary to ‘get’ the jokes. Maybe you need to know more about editors and publishers than an ordinary reader knows.
So I checked out other reviews to see if others fared better than I did.
Cameron Calwell at The Writers Bloc thought that O’Neill had created a satirical, funny alternative history to Australian literature, an exercise he has achieved admirably and with brilliance. (Interestingly, he thought that Addison Tiller was Henry Lawson.)
Elke Power at Readings Monthly thought that 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.
There’s an extract at Meanjin.
Author: Ryan O’Neill
Title: Their Brilliant Careers, The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers
Publisher: Black Inc Books, 2016
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc Books
Available from Fishpond: Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers