Review: Shannon Burnson Ryan O’Neill and Sean Rabin

The Writers We Deserve: Their Brilliant Careers & Wood Green

I suspect that, like me, most readers are inclined to approach any new work of fiction that explores the writing life with a kind of wariness verging on dread, but two recent Australian books prove that metafiction can still be stimulating, and that the Künstlerroman is not yet an exhausted literary form. Both books dramatise the creation, publication and critical reception of fiction – in ironic and satirical registers – and both seem to imply that prevailing contemporary understandings of authorship and literary value are naïve or wilfully distorted. Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: the fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian Writers is, on the face of it, a raging satire of the literary-biographical form and the culture that it celebrates, while Sean Rabin interrogates received ideas about writing as a vocation, and the practice of literary criticism.

A special place in hell is reserved for fawning critics who overpraise books in shamelessly derivative ways. Even so, Their Brilliant Careers is a beautifully written compelling lyrical luminously conceived, fully-realised and rollicking alternate Australian literary history in the tradition of VLADIMIR NABOKOV and GILBERT SORENTINO, which draws from, merges with, celebrates and undermines its inspirations. It is a darkly comedic and thought-provoking tour de force that is haunting relentlessly absurdist, cliché-freebending, gritty and occasionally poignant. Ryan O’Neill has fashioned a heady mixture of literary allusion and farce, combining the satire of John Clarke with the labyrinthine contortions of Jorge Luis Borges in a devastating pitch-perfect, mesmerising and laugh-out-loud funny epic page-turner about love and loss. It is the work of a writer at the height of his powers, and confirms RYAN O’NEILL as one of AUSTRALIA’S most ACCOMPLISHED authors. He is a true original.

O’Neill’s stories have appeared in almost every Australian literary magazine and fiction anthology in recent years, but his work is best appreciated in its collected forms. His first book, The Weight of a Human Heart (2012) shows the range and depth of O’Neill’s formal and imaginative abilities. It features restrained, grim and exacting accounts of the horrors of the Rwandan genocide alongside intelligent and enrichingly experimental stories that combine undercutting irony with pathos. Emotion and form are interdependent in these early stories, and experiences of failure and disenchantment are thrillingly elaborated. He wields surgical similes (‘The road was long and narrow and crooked off at one end like a life of virtue corrupted’) or supplements plot and characterisation with tragic metaphor, as in “A Room Without Books”:

Slaven remembered something from the book of quotations. He believed it was Saint Ambrose who said it: ‘The covers of this book are too far apart.’ His birth certificate was the front cover, his death certificate the back, and though there was so little in between, they were still too far apart.

In this first book O’Neill employs a form of artifice that strives, stubbornly, for originality against dulling convention, especially in the rendering of human anguish. It is mercilessly funny in places, but far from ‘light’ reading.

Their Brilliant Careers extends O’Neill’s mania for the cruel twist of fate. The title partly gives the game away: ‘Brilliant’, ‘Fantastic’ and ‘Extraordinary’ form a triumvirate of over-used superlatives that hint at the buffoonish praise afforded the ‘Sacred Kangaroos’ of Australian fiction — yet the superlatives prove to be accurate. O’Neill is a comic-, romantic-, situational-, tragic- and dramatic-ironist in the guise of a satirist. The object of the satire shifts with each biography, but there is a general sense that literary life and culture is tainted by human idiosyncrasies and failings, deceptions and egoism, power-plays and fantasies. The wheels of fate never cease turning, and the literary world (including Shannon Burns and the Sydney Review of Books) is as susceptible to its cruelties, absurdities and delusions as any other.

Their Brilliant Careers is a top-to-tail fiction that trades in plausibility. From the ‘By the Same Author’ list and dedication at the front to its Kinbote-like ‘Acknowledgments’ at the rear it is packed with forgeries and masks, deceptions and omissions. The only disappointment is the blurb, which informs us that ‘Ryan O’Neill has written a hilarious novel in the guise of sixteen biographies of (invented) Australian writers’, before claiming that ‘Their Brilliant Careers is a playful set of stories, linked in many ways, which together form a memorable whole.’ Perhaps it isn’t unprecedented for a blurb to make two attempts at defining the mode and form of a book that it seeks to promote, but it strikes me as weird. It may point to the difficulty of categorising this kind of fiction, but a far greater curiosity is that the blurb undermines the vital pretence of the book it describes. Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas (1996) – a comparable work of invented biographies that is cited in Their Brilliant Careers as a source of information – is presented as non-fiction on its blurb. We’re informed that ‘Bolaño provides a long-overdue and meticulously researched survey of the writers who have contributed to pan-American Nazi literature.’ Given O’Neill’s extensive efforts to present Their Brilliant Careers as a work of non-fiction between the covers, the blurb’s retreat from artifice is jarring.

The first biographies are of Rand Washington (whose real name is Bruce Boggs) and Matilda Young. Much of the fun lies in reading between the lines, and the description of Washington’s early life carries an ominous insinuation:

Father and son had been on bad terms for months, ever since Mick had learned of Bruce’s literary ambitions and had forbidden him from pursuing them. Instead he forced the young man to learn a trade, and Bruce was apprenticed to a car mechanic in November 1935. Mick Boggs was killed two weeks later while on night patrol in the warehouse district of Wollongong; his neck was broken and his head nearly torn off. The murder was never solved. With the insurance payout from the Police Union, Bruce moved to Sydney, rented a one-room flat in Kings Cross and devoted his life to writing.

Washington has fascist sympathies, his fiction is pointedly racist, and his writing style is ‘described by the influential critic Peter Darkbloom as “subliterate”’. Despite all this, or because of it, he enjoys periods of popularity and becomes a powerful and enduring figure in the Australian literary world—until his demise, which is punctuated by delicious corrective ironies.

Matilda Young is a ‘a poet still shamefully little read or celebrated in her own country’ whose career-path is a mirror-image of Washington’s. She experiences a similar early obstacle (‘Her stepfather discouraged her literary efforts, telling her that men were not attracted to clever girls and that she should put more time into embroidery and the piano’) but overcomes them through inventiveness instead of violence. When Young submits a poem to a journal under her own name the editor calls it ‘too feminine for our taste, and that of our subscribers’. Young is humiliated and

almost destroyed the poem, but instead waited five months before resubmitting it, this time under her husband’s name. Within a week Mackintosh had sent her… a letter accepting the poem, praising it for the ‘masculine heft of the rhythm’.

As with each of his biographies, O’Neill pursues the logic of this absurdity to its extreme limit.

It would be a shame to spoil any of the major punchlines, but the details of Arthur ruhtrA’s radical, OULIPO-inspired experimentalism offer a taste of O’Neill’s humour. ruhtrA’s novel, Long Time No See, is ‘a picaresque satire of Parisian literary life’ which ‘does not use the letter C in all of its 734 pages’. Another work is Repression: A Novel Written Under Constraint, which ruhtrA types ‘with his nose while confined in a straitjacket for six hours a day.’ Then there is Frederick Stafford, ‘the boldest and most successful plagiarist of the twentieth century’. Stafford ‘decided to spare himself the difficult years of apprenticeship’ and instead claimed to be the author of several (lightly-revised) contemporary masterpieces:

The books he published over the next few years exhausted the superlatives of Australian critics: The Enchanted Mountain (1924), The Prodigious Gatsby and Mrs Galloway (both 1925), The Sun Comes Up Too (1926) and Horoo To All That (1929). One perceptive reviewer for the Western Star, noting Stratford’s perfect control of an almost inconceivably varied range of styles and voices, commented, ‘It is as if Frederick Stafford were not one writer, but many’.

But the best biographies are as affecting as they are clever. Among them is the story of Addison Tiller, who writes bush fiction despite the fact that ‘he had never been further west than Parramatta’ and historian Edward Gayle, whose love for a young woman bleeds into his understanding of history in promising then destructive ways. O’Neill here satirises the so-called History Wars – and the arguments of figures like Keith Windschuttle – while humanising its most delusional combatants with a tragic Borgesian twist.

The fact that so many of O’Neill’s writers hail from New South Wales may be part of the joke (I confess an oddly parochial disappointment that none are from South Australia) but a lack of obvious allusions to figures like David Unaipon and Oodgeroo Noonuccal or non-British migrant writers (as far as I could tell) suggests that the sensitivities associated with fictionalising the struggles of marginal writers and literatures are too constraining for O’Neill’s purposes. Theirs aren’t the only missing stories in a book that revels in omissions, but it still seems a shame.

The biography of Vivian Darkbloom draws extensively from Nabokov’s life and fiction, and the influence of the Russian – particularly Pale Fire (1962), with its egomaniacal, brown-bearded, double-dealing narrator – is registered throughout, via textual and biographical references, as well as formal and thematic concerns (O’Neill and Nabokov share, for example, a sustained interest in forms of selfishness and cruelty). As with Pale Fire, playfulness and wit go a long way toward concealing the seriousness with which O’Neill approaches his craft, but they shouldn’t obscure the depth of his achievements.

The authorial presence looms large in O’Neill’s fiction, compelling us to watch closely, to look for the strings and mirrors behind each narrative feat. Because of this, we are forever on guard against formal and tonal missteps or outlandish misdirection, and ready to pounce on anything resembling a careless cliché. This is the sort of fiction that excites readers’ attention instead of lulling them into a stupor with false profundity or empty lyricism. If O’Neill is ever formulaic it is through the reiteration of the ironic or cruel turn — but life is made of similar recurrences.

Sean Rabin’s debut novel is set in Hobart and the small nearby town of Wood Green, situated ‘halfway up a mountain at the bottom of Australia’. It is also about a ‘brilliant’ Australian writer (and a hopeful novice’s path to brilliance). Rabin dramatizes and, I think, ironizes common conceptions and perceptions of the writing life—both shallow and high-minded. But while O’Neill peppers his fiction with explosive amplifications, Rabin takes a subtler, more contained approach. Wood Green deals with the complex business of forming and sustaining various kinds of relationships—between lovers and former lovers, married couples, readers and writers, customers and proprietors, or tourists and the workers who rely on them—with warmth, wit and intelligence.

Michael is a literary academic who has recently been invited to work as a secretary for ‘the man he had spent the second half of his twenties writing a PhD about’, Lucian Clarke. Lucian is a composite figure of various ‘great reclusive writers’, a Frankenstein-like combination of wilful, prickly men. We learn that his ‘novels were large works of complex imagination that contained stories within stories and required hours of undistracted concentration just to read.’ Because of this, Clarke

was far from famous, but had earned a readership loyal enough to ensure his works were reviewed by most major newspapers, and occasionally included in the contemporary literature syllabus of selected universities. For years he had ignored all interview requests, politely declined invitations to edit short story anthologies, wilfully insulted faculty heads who had offered him the chance to teach creative writing courses, and flatly refused to scribble endorsements for anyone else’s books. In 2002 he had been given long odds to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but in the years since then the name Lucian Clarke had failed to reappear as a contender.

Lucian is that kind of serious and dedicated writer – perhaps over-serious and over-dedicated – that some readers and writers, as well as critics and biographers, tend to fawn over: the mythic, monastic type who has (seemingly) given up on worldly things in order to develop and preserve his creative vision and integrity.

Rabin draws attention to the clichés that he risks embracing, as Michael begins writing his own first novel:

Michael’s only regret was that the story concerned a writer. He had read enough debut fiction to appreciate how typical the subject was for a first time novelist. And had he been given the choice he would never have embarked upon such a topic. But free will, it seemed, played no part in the process.

This is an unpromisingly familiar scenario, but Wood Green’s treatment of it is knowing, merciless, unpredictable, and subversive.

The two main characters of Wood Green are introduced in states of panic. Michael is sure that his plane is on a collision course with the coast of Tasmania (his panic ‘refused to be rationalised or contained’) while Lucian, like Dante’s pilgrim-poet, is lost in the woods near his home (‘The signposts that he usually relied upon to point him in the right direction had all of a sudden disappeared’), and the prevailing mood of the novel’s first sections is anxiety or fear.

Both characters are in crisis. Michael is running from a failed relationship and an unsatisfying academic career, and Lucian is struggling to outmanoeuvre a mysterious ailment and the belief that his writing life is coming to an end. Michael appears ill-equipped for the task ahead of him, and Lucian is uncharacteristically eager for his new secretary’s help. Their first encounter is particularly discouraging: ‘Both men stood awkwardly in the hallway. Michael waiting for Lucian to offer him a seat, and Lucian wondering why his new secretary was not pulling his socks back on.’

Throughout much of Wood Green Michael is one of literature’s most valuable types of protagonist: he has barely any insight into himself, and is equally blind to the world around him. This means that Rabin can present one story, relying on Michael’s limited perception and understanding, and another one, derived from characters who are more aware.

Rabin’s portrait of a directionless and stunted former academic in his mid-thirties, who fancies himself as the future biographer of a solitary writer who lives in a tiny, rural town, cuts close to the bone for this critic. Michael’s sister describes him as a weird solitary: ‘I think deep down he feels as though he doesn’t belong anywhere, and it makes it hard for him to commit to anyone.’ Michael lacks physical strength and has a low pain threshold. He is also inconsiderate, irresponsible, sly and unmanly. His former lover knows him to be ‘self-involved’, ‘unreliable’, ‘frustratingly neurotic and somewhat emotionally retarded’, and to Lucian, ‘Michael seemed as incapable of resisting clichés in conversation as he was when theorising about Lucian’s books.’ Lucian hopes that Michael will follow his example and behave like a semi-alert adult in his company, ‘but a sideways glance confirmed that Michael sat like a child witnessing an inebriated parent for the first time.’ Curiously, Lucian chooses Michael as his secretary largely because of his demonstrable mediocrity (‘The letters from the thirty-four-year-old academic revealed he was not particularly overburdened with intellect or curiosity’). His mysterious, ‘meticulously’ devised plans ultimately rely on Michael’s dopiness—as does the developing plot of the novel.

Rabin gradually, and artfully, enlarges the narrative point of view over the first several sections of the novel, so that the third person limited perspective ultimately comes to embrace the inner worlds of an extensive cast of major and (relatively) minor characters, while retaining careful limitations. One of his more exuberant strategies is to record the chatter of various taxi drivers in the form of longish monologues, as they ferry Michael and, later, his ex-girlfriend Rachel, from Hobart to Wood Green and back. These monologues extend the range of voices—and demonstrate Rabin’s gift for capturing distinct personalities in short bursts—without undermining the novel’s structure.

Perhaps Wood Green can be understood to dramatise the harsh sacrifices required of those who want to become pure, uncompromising writers. Lucian’s declarations about ‘real’ writing and writers are so familiar to readers of serious literature, and broadly accepted, that they almost seem like the central, persuasive argument of the novel. But I think Rabin is playing a more intricate game. Instead, by extending the logic of ‘personal sacrifice for art’s sake’ to its extremity, the novel mocks romantic portrayals of the creative vocation at least as much as it endorses them. While O’Neill plays a game of remorseless subversion, Rabin holds up both sides of an argument with similar force.

Michael considers the importance of sacrifice early in the novel, when he is demonstrably prone to clichéd reasoning: ‘…though he appreciated what he was giving up, Michael also knew that to become a writer meant making sacrifices, and the loss of Rachel’s company was just one of the things he was willing to forgo.’ This is a rare example of careless writing and editing—surely Michael was willing to forego Rachel’s company instead of the loss of it—but the fact that Michael thinks it during his dimmest phase serves to highlight the ambiguous status of artistic sacrifice, and the ironic texture of the novel.

Rabin’s brand of irony can entertain two ideas at once: extreme personal sacrifice is required in order to be a writer, or not; true writers are born and not made, or not; profound solitude is essential to the writing life, or not. A glance in the acknowledgements section shows where Rabin stands on this score – he is openly grateful to others for their support and advice – but it’s important to recognise that Rabin is not the kind of writer represented in his novel.

Wood Green is certainly a complex imaginative work, but it is also accessible, requiring only moderate levels of concentration and alertness from readers. The style is familiar and, for the most part, realist. Sentences are short, often clipped down and beginning with conjunctions. Chapters are only a few pages long, events are organised in a mostly linear sequence, and several of Rabin’s characters would be at home in a novel by Tim Winton or Christos Tsiolkas. In fact, the bulk of Wood Green is more akin to familiar forms of fiction than the novels that Lucian admires and writes, so when Lucian makes claims about literature or its critical reception he is not necessarily voicing the novel’s overriding argument.

Lucian has little regard for Michael’s academic training, which, he tells Michael, has led to a habit of ‘appropriating other people’s ideas to disguise the fact you have so few of your own.’ He points out that he is ‘not some anonymous funding body handing out grants so you can sit around regurgitating my own ideas back to me. I’m paying you to do an actual job.’ This is a familiar (and not altogether fair or unfair) sentiment, and Michael, for his part, is equally scathing of the ‘half-hearted’ broadsheet reviews of Lucian’s fiction:

…each review broadly summarised the narrative, identified a few distinguishing features, and arrived at the same judgement… Michael was shocked at how much journalists had plagiarised one another. Though the earliest critic had clearly misinterpreted a key element of the plot, all the ensuing reviewers had perpetuated the mistake like a Chinese whisper. Few had bothered to discuss the novel’s structure, voice or context in contemporary literature… It was as if the reviewers had skim-read the novel. Or grown too impatient and not bothered to read to the end.

Michael argues that the conventions of contemporary reviews and mainstream critical responses to fiction have much to do with ‘the spare clean style of prose that was currently in vogue with publishers and universities’. The irony is that Michael essentially describes the style of the novel that he appears in. Wood Green isn’t quite ‘devoid of any awkward metre’ but there is little sign of circumlocution. Despite this, it is far from conventional.

While Michael ponders the flattening and deadening or confounding and enlivening possibilities of style, Wood Green relies on plot and irony to discomfit the reader. According to Michael, the dominant brand of contemporary writing assumes

that readers wanted real events set in real places to support a real story about real people. And if they were not real, then they had better be based on real people. No one wanted to feel lied to or manipulated, so everything needed to be coated in a thick syrup of familiarity. to ensure readers would recognise themselves in the work. For without such a thing there was a risk they might experience a different way of thinking. Or living. And who wanted to read a book like that? Lucian did, that’s who. And it was why he refused to give a damn about reality in his work. Making a reader feel secure in their values and ideas was not the purpose of his writing. In fact, he was committed to the exact opposite.

Rabin takes a very different approach (until he doesn’t), portraying mostly real-seeming people in mostly real-seeming places in a mostly familiar and straightforward style. Yet the novel’s ‘thick syrup of familiarity’ is deployed to unfamiliar and satisfying ends. Wood Green’s blurb prepares us for ‘an unsuspected plot twist’, but its denouement is more than just surprising: with it, Rabin deftly entwines the opposing literary values that his novel entertains, and conjures a climax of uncommon resonance and ambiguity.

Such ironies bring to mind Richard Rorty’s arguments in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (1989). Rorty sought to position two opposing constructions of literary production – one concerned with personal elevation and aestheticism, the other concerned with interpersonal experience and social justice – into a fruitful relation. In order to do this, he claimed, we have to retain a pluralist’s double-vision. Rorty says:

We shall only think of these two kinds of writers as opposed if we think that a more comprehensive philosophical outlook would let us hold self-creation and justice, private perfection and human solidarity, in a single vision. There is no way in which philosophy, or any other theoretical discipline, will ever let us do that.

Rorty highlights what he calls the ‘contingency of language’, or our inability to escape ‘the various vocabularies we have employed and find a metavocabulary which somehow takes account of all possible vocabularies, all possible ways of judging and feeling.’ Once we’ve given up the doomed attempt to fashion a single, legitimate ‘outlook’ for literary production or analysis we can concentrate on changing the relation between the established positions. Instead of thinking of them as competing outlooks or competing methods of analysis and judgment, Rorty wants to put them both to work in an effort to diversify, enlarge, and, he hopes, re-enliven public and private discourses that will otherwise reproduce competing forms of sneering or passive dogmatism. We can also think of the relation between competing writer-types, he says,

…as being like the relation between two kinds of tools – as little in need of synthesis as are paintbrushes and crowbars. One sort of writer lets us realize that the social virtues are not the only virtues, that some people have actually succeeded in re-creating themselves. We thereby become aware of our own half-articulate need to become a new person, one whom we as yet lack words to describe. The other sort reminds us of the failure of our institutions and practices to live up to the convictions to which we are already committed by the public, shared vocabulary we use in daily life. The one tells us that we need not speak only the language of the tribe, that we may find our own words, that we may have a responsibility to ourselves to find them. The other tells us that that responsibility is not the only one we have. Both are right, but there is no way to make both speak a single language.

Rabin has, to my mind, succeeded in producing a novel that signals the rightness, as well as the limitations, of each side of a long-standing literary argument. Wood Green’s ambiguity makes definitive interpretation impossible, but it seems to me to trouble the ‘competing’ relation between Rorty’s literary ‘outlooks’, which has long appeared as inescapable as it is circular and dull.

Recent events indicate that all kinds of readers and critics – highbrow, middlebrow or lowbrow, broadsheet and long form, academics and bloggers – still yearn for their particular version of the ideal author, whether it be a pseudonymous and invented figure who invites readers to project their highest hopes and sympathies, reclusive authors who leave us free to exercise our analytical prowess or inflict a favoured theory on their work, or effusive celebrities who sustain the illusion of intimacy or transparency or (like Nabokov) virtuosity. We still want authors to be admirable or noble according to one or another set of values (it doesn’t really matter which because there’s a market for all kinds), and we are still disillusioned, or even outraged, when the spell of ideal-authorship is broken.  Their Brilliant Careers and Wood Green are tonics against such wearying, but altogether human, readerly impulses. O’Neill and Rabin undermine, or at least trouble, the clichés and conventions that our literary culture relies on, as well as the ossified poses that writers and critics can fall into; and they achieve this by – of all things – embracing them.

Works Cited:

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Ryan O’Neill, The Weight of the Human Heart, Black Inc., 2012.