A bravura hotchpotch of the lives of 16 (fictional) Australian writers from inveterate racist through to manipulating blackmailer, from overbearing bully to a fiction within her own fiction, Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers is a satirical swipe at the literary establishment.
Sixteen people, sixteen stories, sixteen histories. Ranging over approximately one hundred years, inevitably there are numerous overlaps – the biographer of one, the child of another, the editor of many.
Satire abounds in the short biographies (an average of 15-20 pages per person) and Their Brilliant Careers builds towards a crescendo as it looks to its last exposé. The construct of O’Neill’s Australian literary world is a wholly believable one. It’s detailed and intricate, with each writer provided with a distinctive idiosyncrasy. Absurd but rarely dull, ironic without being monotonous, O’Neill instils a sense of a fun, light read. It’s a commanding insight into that literary world. That’s the positive side of Their Brilliant Careers.
But it also becomes a little too formulaic, a little too much misery with early deaths in miserable circumstances. Satire becomes spoof – and not always successfully, slipping into the very self-aggrandisement it’s mirroring and commenting upon. The result is that the joke wears thin.
At its best, Their Brilliant Careers is certainly entertaining (personal favourites were the lives of editor, Robert Bush, whose favourite copyediting symbol was ‘delete’ and used only purple ink; the reclusive, forgotten Helen Harkaway) but Their Brilliant Careers cried out for more than its lightweight content. Pastiche can carry only so much. A slightly longer, ‘ordinary’ story of a writer/historian/publisher would have provided the balance.
Shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, Ryan O’Neill lost out to Josephine Wilson and her Extractions.