“Actually, most of my previous publications listed in ‘Their Brilliant Careers’ are made up! It’s all part of the joke. The only real one is ‘The Weight of a Human Heart.’”
“…as much as I love Australian literature and hope my fondness…comes thru in the book, it does tend to take itself a bit seriously sometimes…” Ryan O’Neill
It is more than a little embarrassing that I emailed Ryan O’Neill to ask where a copy of his Sacred Kangaroos: Fifty Overrated Australian Novels could be procured. I understood that Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers was fiction, a kind of elaborate joke about the Australian literary scene but the conventional listing of the author’s back catalogue at the beginning of the novel threw me. The author’s polite, understanding response made me feel a little worse about it for a while but the irony made up for it. We need more irreverence and playfulness in our literary culture and O’Neill has produced such a novel deservingly listed for the Miles Franklin Award this year.
Their Brilliant Careers is very clever. Even better, it is very, very funny, often darkly so. The sixteen writers are often recognisably parodies of Australian authors and O’Neill has satirised the different periods of our literary history with verve. Steele Rudd, Henry Lawson, Barbara Baynton , Miles Franklin, Ern Malley and Keith Windschuttle came easily to my mind along the way and I also wondered about how the well-known offspring, of other literary figures, reacted to the book. Good-natured mirth?
O’Neill, now based in Newcastle, NSW, emigrated from Scotland in 2004 and has read Australian literature widely since then. Who could dispute his finding that “the default setting is realist”. Major themes in the book explore the sexism and racism inherent to the nation’s literary tradition. O’Neill really has a good time and one can sense the author’s amusement with his literary creations as they illustrate what he has observed over the last decade or so of close and critical reading.
Their brilliant (and not so brilliant) literary careers are interlinked. O’Neill has said that he started with ideas for individual chapters and then concocted links between many of the stories/lives. One of the delights, not to be spoilt by this review, is that you will find – what the author thinks of as “Easter eggs” – along the way. When I re-read the novel more of these little jests will undoubtedly be enjoyed.
One of my favourite chapters is the about the experimental writer Arthur ruhtrA, founder of the Australian avant-garde writing collective Kangaroulipo (please click on the link), who was born Arthur Robinson on 30 August 1940, “in the foreign literature section of his father’s bookshop in Fremantle, Western Australia.” Arthur obviously had little choice but to be absorbed by literature and claimed “that his best friend in childhood was Huckleberry Finn, his first love Elizabeth Bennet, and that he had lost his virginity to Fanny Hill.” How can one not love a writer who dismisses Australian literature as “the acne on the greasy skin of an adolescent country” and who insults both conservative and experimental poets with élan. O’Neill really has some fun with ruhtrA:
“Fearing for his life, he demanded to be placed under police protection. When this was refused, he employed four members of the local Hell’s Angels chapter to act as his personal bodyguards until the row had blown over. For months ruhtrA and his “Avant Guard” appeared at book launches and poetry readings in Sydney, their very presence a provocation to those present. The bikies also accompanied ruhtrA to court when he was sued for breach of copyright for his sexually explicit experimental novel The Coming of the Harlequins, which New Dimensions had published in January 1976. ruhtrA lost the court case and had to pay two thousand dollars plus costs to Helen Harkaway, the writer whose novel he was found to have copied. This meant he was unable to pay the bikies the money he owed them, and ruhtrA was later hospitalised with two broken legs after being attacked by four supposedly unknown assailants.”
Another of my new favourite Australian authors is the communist writer, Francis Xavier McVeigh. His most “incendiary works” include: The Kulak’s Wife: On the Class Traitor Henry Lawson, The Forgetting of Wisdom: The Bourgeois Australian Education System and the utopian, Pa and Pete on Our Collective Farm. McVeigh, in his 1931 speech to the Conference of Australian Communist Writers memorably said:
“We must take the billy off the boil. We must put a bullet through the head of The Loaded Dog. The Snowy River must be dammed, and the Overflow liquidated.”
Perhaps his critics were even wittier though dismissing one of his novels, The Red Flag:
“…as an almost unreadable instance of the Soviet “Boy Meets Tractor, Tractor Breaks Down, Boy Repairs Tractor” school of fiction.”
It is difficult, even though I have read widely for over four decades, to make a list of great Australian literature that I feel truly passionate about or that genuinely inspires or amuses.* It all feels so very conventional. I certainly chuckled at O’Neill’s one-liner, “…she stumbled upon a forgotten corner of the library where she was never disturbed by either students or staff: the Australian literature section”. I have made a list though. It doesn’t include Patrick White.
*NB I feel very unhappy about sliding into cultural cringe mode.
Peter Kocan’s twin novellas, usually published together, The Treatment and the Cure, were the first I ever read (other than choose-your-own-adventures) written in second person. Fred Nile was instrumental in removing Kocan’s work from HSC reading lists. David Malouf’s, An Imaginary Life, is also special. Wake in Fright, I read as a young teacher about to move ‘out west’ to teach. It made me laugh aloud rather than feel nihilistic. Peter Carey always left me cold, except for Bliss and one of his short stories, Peeling. Henry Lawson’s short stories are funny, poignant and masterfully written. As a kid, Colin Thiele’s novels about growing up on the Australian coast, especially Storm Boy and Blue Fin, were important too me, as was Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette’s, Puberty Blues. The poetry of Geoff Page and Michael Dransfield, also that of Gig Ryan, spoke to me. Am I the only one who feels that Tim Winton’s non fiction is more significant than his fiction (except for Cloudstreet)? In fact, Australian non fiction, especially authors like Helen Garner, Don Watson, Inga Clendinnen, Robert Hughes and Geoffrey Blainey had more resonance in my reading life than any of our novels. Do we have any plays that really soar to the greatest heights imaginatively? I have plays I love, especially when I think about their impact when I first saw them – Alan Seymour’s, One Day of the Year – but none that feel truly special (for example, last week I saw Cyrano de Bergerac and marvelled at the inventiveness). Perhaps one should consider picture books the most memorable books in our literary culture, much in the same way Play School is for Australian television?
“…he did not have the imaginative gift for fiction, and he decided instead to become a biographer.” Ryan O’Neill
Ryan O’Neill’s first publication, The Weight of a Human Heart and Nazi Literature in the Americas, Roberto Bolaño‘s book of imaginary Pan-American authors, are on the top of my pile to read. I would encourage Mr O’Neill to really write a work of non fiction titled, Sacred Kangaroos: Fifty Overrated Australian Novels after he has written several more satirical works exploring Australian life and culture. It would be nice to be mentioned in the preface for encouraging considering my earlier faux pas. 😉
You can listen to the author talking about his novel on Radio National’s Books and Art program.
Other titles read during September
A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (2012) by Nicholas A. Basbanes
The Care of Fine Books (2014) by Jane Greenfield
Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide (2014) by Allen Ahearn, Elizabeth Ahearn Fisher
Coming Up for Air, The Complete Works of George Orwell – Volume 7, Secker & Warburg, 1997
Orwell’s Nose: A Pathological Biography (2016) by John Sutherland
George Orwell and Religion (2016) by Michael G. Brennan