Their Brilliant Careers

Posted 22 March 2020

Review of Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers by Ryan O’Neill

This book may be described, in alphabetical order, as bizarre, clever, ingenious, literary, off the wall, peculiar, sophisticated, strange, whacky, witty, and zany. The really clever bit is that it keeps up the fiction that it is non-fiction from the cover through to the acknowledgments and index.

Although each writer’s biography can stand independently of the others, it’s best to start reading at the beginning rather than treat it as a collection of short stories because some of the characters crop up in more than one biography — as would be expected if they were real people who had actually been on the literary scene at overlapping times.

There are allusions to real writers, events, and literary output. Being neither Australian nor an expert on literature, it’s entirely possible that I have missed some allusions, though I enjoyed those that did register with me. These “lives” really are fantastic, as claimed in the subtitle: they encompass personal and professional crusades and obsessions, together with sprinklings of outrageous fortune and misfortune (mostly the latter). Halfway through, I began to think that the weirdity wasn’t redeemed by the cleverness. However, all’s well that ends well with a twist in the life of a fictional biographer.