Ryan O’Neill’s startling inventive novel, Their Brilliant Careers, is a rich and entertaining upending of this scholarly device, set in the field of literary history. O’Neill cleverly plays on the idea of a literary cannon and its often circular and self-referential foundations, in which luck – as much as talent – can develop, and end, a career. Indeed the novel’s very title is a play on Miles Franklin’s first novel My Brilliant Career. O’Neill has imagined some fifteen biographies of Australian writers – literary authors, poets, hacks, editors and academics – whose bizarre and exaggerated lives he neatly slots into real literary history.
But Their Brilliant Careers is much more than satire. It is a beautifully crafted, carefully plotted, maze of a novel which contests its genre, through wit, absurdity, and clichéd tropes of literature and literary life. O’Neill questions authorship, authenticity, whether talent is natural or nurtured, and the very origins of culture. O’Neill effortlessly captures the smooth detachment of the biographical format, but at the same time trips it up with outrageous insertions and risible comments. Their Brilliant Careers is a sparkling, intelligent and fun riposte to the manufacturing of history.
The 2017 Miles Franklin winner, to be announced on 7 September at the State Library of New South Wales, will receive $60,000.
The Miles Franklin Award was established in 1954 by the estate of My Brilliant Career author Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin to celebrate the Australian character and creativity. It supports the betterment of Australian literature by each year recognising the novel of the highest literary merit which presents Australian Life in any of its phases.