I have been reading a lot of non-fiction over the last few weeks, and even the most recent novel I have read masquerades as a series of biographical sketches. ‘Their Brilliant Careers’ by Ryan O’Neill is introduced as a collection of sixteen portraits of Australian literary figures from the 20th century. It is a shame that the blurb and my review are forced by necessity to reveal that everything from the dedication to the index is invented, but O’Neill’s highly amusing pastiche more than makes up for this.
I first heard about ‘Their Brilliant Careers’ via a thought-provoking thread on Twitter by Scott Pack, the editor-in-large of small independent publisher Lightning Books, about the frankly baffling experience of submitting the book for consideration by the Man Booker Prize panel (a more detailed blog post is available here). It is oddly fitting that a book which satirises the publishing industry so relentlessly was itself involved in one of the sillier aspects of the literary world, namely the way in which prizes are organised and nominated books are selected. It has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (named after the Australian author of ‘My Brilliant Career’) and won the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, although a Booker Prize nomination would certainly have guaranteed wider recognition than it currently has, especially in the UK.
From racist pulp fiction author Rand Washington (real name Bruce Boggs) to plagiarist Frederick Stafford (author of ‘Mrs Galloway’ and ‘The Prodigious Gatsby’) to ruthless editor Robert Bush to prolific author Catherine Swan who wrote under 55 different pen names, links between the characters begin to emerge. The “author” is married to one of the characters, the late Rachel Deverall, who has a key role in the mystery which lies at the heart of the book and takes revenge against her surviving husband in her collation of the index shortly before her death. Some of the characters interact with real authors, such as experimental writer Arthur ruhtrA meeting Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau during his time in Paris.
Despite the very different setting and genre, the strengths of ‘Their Brilliant Careers’ strongly reminded me of His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, which is another novel presented under the guise of non-fiction. It could quite easily have become too clever for its own good, but O’Neill’s skill in weaving ironic humour with darker themes and creating richly drawn and convincing characters ensures ‘Their Brilliant Careers’ is nothing less than a joy from beginning to end.