RYAN O’NEILL Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
I’m tempted to describe this book as a parody of Australian literary history — so I will.
Taking the piss is very Australian. It’s also very British and the practice is diffused to various corners of the British Empire and Commonwealth. In taking up any book for review I read the jacket notes, and here I discover that Ryan O’Neill ‘has written a hilarious novel in the guise of sixteen biographies of (invented) Australian writers’. Mmmm. I’m invited to meet three – Rachel Deverall, Rand Washington and Addison Tiller, ‘The Chekhov of Coolabah’. Mmmm. I’m told that Their Brilliant Careers is a playful set of linked stories, ‘a wonderful comic tapestry of the writing life’ which takes ‘Australian writing in a whole new direction’. Be prepared, as Lord Baden-Powell might have put it.
But I stay on the back cover, for there is a small head shot of the author looking like a stand-up comic (or a CSIRO scientist) with biographical details attached. According to this bio Ryan O’Neill’s ‘internationally acclaimed fiction and nonfiction have been shortlisted for numerous literary awards, and translated into several languages. His work is studied in universities around Australia, and has been adapted for radio and the stage’. He apparently lives in Sydney with his fiancée, Anne.
I’m about to turn the book over when I note in tiny print that the author’s photograph has been taken by Rachel Deverall. Is this the same Rachel Deverall ‘who unearthed the secret source of the great literature of our time – and paid a terrible price for her discovery’, the same Rachel Deverall who is one of the (invented) Australian writers? Could be.
Warning bells ahead.
Open the book. Half-title page, pass. Books by the same author, check. Google as everyone does. Fiction – The Weight of a Human Heart: Stories was published by Black Inc in 2012 and it won literary awards; pass. Non-fiction – three books listed which don’t exist. Forthcoming – a book with a very long title co-written with Anne Zoellner. Google again. Find a Mary Ann Zoellner, four-time Emmy award-winning TV producer at NBC news in the United States. She could be a worthwhile co-author to promote the new book internationally. Keep turning pages. Dedication – ‘For my late wife, Rachel’. Sad. Coincidence? Contents – Foreword by Anne Zoellner (here she is again), the biographies, acknowledgments and index. Index? Ever read a novel with an index before? I mainly read history and even substantial works of scholarship don’t have indexes these days, nor footnotes, nor are they edited, and so one can blather on and on and on. But a novel with an index promises to be a novel novel.
I find myself drawn to the index to begin with and being a contrary kinda bloke the last entry will come first and the first last.
affair with Ryan O’Neill 129
betrayal of her best friend Rachel Deverall and providing Ryan O’Neill with an alibi 136-7
Have you ever started reading a novel at page 129? Is there mention of Anne Zoellner’s affair with Ryan O’Neill on that page? No. Are either of them mentioned on that page? No. Is there mention of Anne Zoellner betraying her best friend and providing Ryan O’Neill with an alibi on pages 136-7? No. Did I say this book was a piss-take? Something along those lines.
When I get around to finally reading the 16 biographies there are actually 15. Although listed under Contents for pages 261 to 262 the chapter on Sydney Steele is entirely blank. Why? Probably for the same reason his index entry reads: ‘Steel, Sydney, Blank’.
So what is this book about? A lot of make-believe characters with connections, plays, substitutions, witty epigraphs, much ado about plagiarism, jokes galore: Quarter for Quadrant, Northerly for Southerly (or Westerly), Overground for Overland, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Souci’, ‘Whingeing Matilda’ and those books which flow so readily from Frederick Stratford – Odysseus, The Sun Comes Up Too, The Prodigious Gatsby, Ooroo to All That and Long Time No See, described as a ‘picaresque satire on Parisian life’ told without using the letter C on any of its 734 pages. Stratford also launches lawsuits against James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Robert Graves, among others, for breach of copyright.
Of the curiously named experimental writer Arthur ruhtuA it is said, ‘Poor Arthur: The only constraint he couldn’t overcome was his lack of talent.’ Of editor Robert Bush we learn that Bush’s favourite copy-editing symbol was ‘Delete’. And the spirit of Addison Tiller’s prose is encapsulated in the line,”‘Wot a larf, eh Pa?’ howled Pete. ‘Wot a larf!’”
There are other laughs (and minor amusements). Addison Tiller (Henry George Watkins) might stand for Steele Rudd, Edward Gale for Keith Windschuttle and Donald Chapman for Ern Malley. Like Rudd (Arthur Hoey Davis), Tiller is an ‘authentic voice of the Bush’. And as Davis chose Steele as a first name because of his admiration for the English essayist (The Oxford Companion to English Literature, 1985, p 603) so too did Watkins choose Addison, Steele’s friend and fellow essayist. Pa and Pete, of course, can readily be recognised as Dad and Dave
Do we know what Their Brilliant Careers is about? Sort of. But how was it written and is this a proper question to ask? Did the author take up the Australian Dictionary of Biography and sieve through it for literary entries on which to make variations? Did he examine the aforementioned Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, extract a bit here and tweak a bit there? Has he made a close study of the subject as a whole or merely a close study of Geoffrey Dutton’s The Australian Collection: Australia’s greatest books?
Should the reader be offended that these biographies are of people who aren’t real? It is a novel: it is fiction. Offence is most often taken when fictional characters are real. The publisher (if not the author) has been straightforward, on the back cover at least.
As for the author, finally, will the real Ryan O’Neill reveal himself? I had begun to think he might be a former Goldilocks Hollywood actor who had lost the plot and forgotten how to spell his own name, so I googled again. I find that the photograph taken by the non-existent Rachel Deverall is repeated on the Black Inc website and purports to be of a man who was born in Glasgow, is married with two daughters, and teaches at the University of Newcastle.