Published: Lightning Books (April 2018)
The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers
WINNER: Australian PM's Award for Fiction
SHORTLISTED: Miles Franklin Literary Award
Absurd, original and highly addictive, Their Brilliant Careers is a hilarious novel in the guise of sixteen biographies of (invented) Australian writers.
Subjects include Rachel Deverall, who unearthed the secret source of the great literature of our time and paid a terrible price for her discovery; Rand Washington, hugely popular sci-fi author, body-builder and inveterate racist; and Addison Tiller, whose stories set in the outback were bestsellers even though he had never actually travelled outside Sydney. And let’s not forget experimental writer Arthur ruhtrA, who wrote a whole novel without once using the letter C.
Every page – from the dedication to the index – is fraudulent, each biography interweaving with the rest to form a magnificent lie. The result is a sparklingly inventive award-winning novel.
With a cold blaster in one hand a hot-blooded princess in the other, Buck Whiteman prepared to singlehandedly face the dark, slavering hordes of Cor!
– From Subhumans of Cor (1937)
Rand Washington, best known for his hugely popular Cor series of science-fiction novels and short stories, as well as his extreme views on race, was born Bruce Alfred Boggs on 11 August 1919 in Wollongong, New South Wales, exactly nine months after the end of the First World War. He was to claim later in life that the last shot fired in anger during the conflict had been his father impregnating his mother just before 11 a.m. on Armistice Day. Bruce’s father, Mick, was a police constable, and his mother, Janet, worked as a maid in one of the wealthier areas of the city. The boy’s childhood was defined by, on the one hand, the frequent, brutal beatings he received from his father, and on the other, his endless reading and rereading of the novels of H.G. Wells, which his mother first borrowed, then stole, for her son from the houses she worked in. Critics have been quick to seize on these facts to explain the sadomasochistic bent of much of Washington’s writing, especially the Cor books.
Janet Boggs’s petty thefts were eventually reported by a gardener, leading to her being sacked and her turning to alcohol. When her son was only eleven she died from cirrhosis. Bruce never forgot the gardener, or the fact that he was Aboriginal.
By the time of his mother’s death, Bruce, having all but memorised the works of Wells, searched out the few pulp magazines that reached Australia from America, months and sometimes years after their original publication. The pulps were to have a transformative effect on the young man, both physically and psychologically. Seven months after sending a coupon cut from Spicy Detective Stories to New York, Bruce received the first instalment of “Hercules Strong’s Twelve Lessons to Physical Perfection”. Diligently following Strong’s instructions for three years, Bruce had, by the time he was fifteen, succeeded in changing his physique to such an extent that (he once claimed) he was offered a job as strongman when a circus visited Wollongong in 1935.
Bruce’s reading ranged across every genre the pulps offered, from cowboy stories, wilderness romances and medical dramas to science fiction, fantasy and horror. He was an early correspondent of the American writer H.P. Lovecraft, whose work he first came across in the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales. Bruce’s first attempts at writing were horror short stories, and Lovecraft, always generous with his time, agreed to critique them. Though these early stories have not survived, Lovecraft’s responses have, and demonstrate the older writer’s acute literary judgment, tempered with forbearance at Bruce’s ignorance of grammar and punctuation. As well as advising the boy to buy a dictionary and thesaurus, Lovecraft warned him that filling his stories with extremist views on race could, as Lovecraft knew from personal experience, alienate editors. Bruce did not listen. Eventually, Lovecraft tired of the young Australian’s repetitive jeremiads warning of “the mongrel races”, and the correspondence lapsed after two years. Bruce always maintained he had simply outgrown Lovecraft and the weird after discovering his true love, science fiction.
Bruce’s final communication with Lovecraft made no mention of the death of his father, Mick Boggs, which had occurred only two days before the letter was sent. 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 almost 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. He was nothing if not productive. In the first half of 1936 he wrote an estimated 300,000 words, submitting ten novellas and forty short stories to Australian pulps ranging from Thrilling Housekeeping Yarns to Spooky Bush Tales. These submissions, under the name Bruce Boggs, were swiftly rejected. The dismissal of his work made Bruce intensify his efforts, and he was eventually to produce an average of 500,000 words a year from the second half of 1936 to the outbreak of war three years later.
In July 1936, a month after adopting the pen name “Rand Washington”, the young writer finally made his first sale, “The Rockets of Uranus V” to Bonzer Science Stories for five pounds. This success encouraged Bruce Boggs to adopt the name Rand Washington permanently, and to concentrate his literary efforts on the burgeoning and increasingly lucrative Australian pulp science-fiction market. Bonzer Science Stories was one of two dozen pulps published by Siegfried Press, founded and managed by James Smith (born Johannes Schmidt), a German war veteran who had migrated to Australia in 1921. Smith was keen to expand into the novel market, and after accepting and publishing nine stories by Rand Washington in the latter half of 1936, he arranged to meet with the writer in January of the following year to discuss ideas for longer works. It was at this meeting that Washington was first introduced to the tenets of National Socialism; Smith presented him with a signed copy of an English translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1925), to which Siegfried Press held Australian publishing rights. The result of Hitler’s, and to a lesser extent Smith’s, influence on Washington’s hitherto virulent but directionless racism can be seen in Washington’s first novel, Whiteman of Cor, published in July 1937.
This book, the first in the seemingly endless Cor saga, was to set the template for all that followed. Buck Whiteman, a space scout employed by the nation of Ausmerica to seek new worlds for colonisation, is lost and shipwrecked on the hostile desert planet of Cor. Here, the “white race”, led by the love interest in all the Cor novels, Princess BelleFemme Blanch, has been overthrown and enslaved by the “Argobolin”, described as “a savage, untrustworthy, genetically inferior tribe of evil blacks”. After rescuing the princess and inciting a rebellion, Whiteman leads the new “White Masters of Cor” on a mission of extermination against their erstwhile “Aboverlords”. Despite the blatant racism directed towards Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants, which permeates every page of the Cor books, and a writing style described by the influential critic Peter Darkbloom as “subliterate”, Whiteman of Cor was an immediate success, reprinted six times in 1937 alone.
Smith ordered Washington back to the typewriter, and over the next two years a further twenty-five Cor novels appeared, serialised in Bonzer Science Stories and its newly launched sister publications, Bonzer Scientifiction Tales and Astounding TrueBlue Science, before being published as standalone novels. All were bestsellers and, along with the translation and publication of the Cor books into German by the publishing house C. Bertelsmann Verlag, beginning with Der Weise Mann Von Cor (1938), helped to make Smith a wealthy man. Unfortunately for Washington, he had signed over the rights to all future Cor novels to Smith in June 1937 for just two hundred pounds.
James Smith’s good fortune was not to last. The outbreak of war in 1939, the paper shortages that followed and, most damningly, Smith’s continuing and vocal support for Hitler resulted in the virtual bankruptcy of Siegfried Press by 1941. A year later Smith committed suicide by leaping through the closed window of his fifth-floor harbourfront apartment. Fortunately for Washington, Smith had written a new will on the night he died, naming Washington as his sole beneficiary and returning the Cor rights to their creator. In another stroke of good luck, Washington was exempted from military service because of his work in publishing, a reserved occupation.
Throughout the war years Washington rebuilt Siegfried Press (renamed Fountainhead Press in 1942) by capitalising on the Australian public’s fear of Japan. Whiteman of Yellos (1943), the first book in a new series, saw Buck Whiteman and his insipid princess journey to the neighbouring planet of Yellos, where “yellow demons” had overthrown the race of “Purewhites”. At the same time, Washington launched a new line of pulps, including A Bonzer Homestead and Bonzer Down on the Farm Stories, to take advantage of the public’s nostalgia for simpler times. By the end of the Second World War, Washington was responsible for writing half a dozen science-fiction pulps, editing a further twenty bush, romance and medical-themed pulps, and overseeing the ghostwriting of the Yellos novels.
One of these ghosts was Sydney Steele, the famous Australian novelist, short-story writer and poet. Steele had fallen on hard times after returning from England in 1940. Destitute and miserable, he reluctantly agreed to write a Yellos novel for Fountainhead Press in November 1944, but Washington, who despised Steele for his involvement with the Communist Party, had no intention of publishing it. He wore Steele out with his demands for revisions, forcing him to rewrite the book twenty-three times in six months, at the end of which he exploited a loophole in their contract to reject the work without payment. Evicted from his room at a Sydney boarding house, Steele ripped up the manuscript and stuffed it under his clothes to help keep him warm through the winter. Of Steele’s many lost works, the destruction of Nippers of Yellos is undoubtedly the least to be regretted.
Washington, exhausted by years of toil, decided in 1946 to hire an editor to look after his increasingly profitable romance line, which included Sheilas in Love, Nurse Sheila Romances and Spicy Sheila True Confessions. In June he arranged to meet with J.R. Hardacre, a frequent contributor to romance pulps, to offer him the position. Washington was stunned to find that Hardacre was the pen name of an attractive young woman, Joyce Reith. Though conscious that Washington’s novels, stories and editorials were full of references to the weakness and helplessness of the female sex, Reith accepted the offered role. Washington proposed marriage to Reith numerous times throughout 1947 and 1948, but it was only when Reith’s father was forced to declare bankruptcy after losing his uninsured bookshop in Newtown to a mysterious fire that she finally accepted. Washington and Reith married in June 1948, the same month that sales of Reith’s romance pulps exceeded, for the first time, those of Washington’s science-fiction magazines. After the wedding Washington gifted his father-in-law a substantial amount of money to clear his debts, an act of generosity memorialised in editorials in Fountainhead pulps.
The birth of the couple’s son Galt in March 1949 inspired Washington to establish a new line of pulps, led by the flagship Stupendous Bubba Stories, to cater for the postwar baby boom. The romance and baby pulps, expertly edited and marketed by Joyce Washington, were to continue until the mid-1950s, and by that time were all that was keeping Fountainhead Press solvent. In 1956 it became clear to Rand Washington that the Australian pulp market was dying, and he reluctantly sold his company to Kookaburra Books for fifteen thousand pounds. Washington used the money to fund a new literary magazine called Quarter, modelled on American slicks such as the Saturday Evening Post and Harper’s. Though initially apolitical, before long Washington’s vituperative editorials alienated left-leaning writers, who organised a boycott of the magazine. By the end of its first year Quarter had published essays by Washington denouncing poet Matilda Young’s “bleeding-heart Bolshevism”, as well as articles and opinion pieces by prominent conservative writers, including historian Edward Gayle, who took over editorship of the journal in 1960.
A few more Cor and Yellos novels appeared in the final years of the 1950s, but Washington was to complain in the letters pages of the few remaining SF pulps that it was becoming increasingly difficult to get his work into print. He blamed a “shadowy Aboriginal cabal in the publishing world” for the commercial failure of Slave Girls of Cor (1959). A book review by Guy Strong in Overground had called the novel “a farrago of sexy violence and violent sex, embodying all of our country’s darkest impulses”. Conservative commentators for the Antipodean and Quarter leapt to Washington’s defence, with Edward Gayle arguing that the Cor novels were “a unique attempt to create a mythology for this great country, which has never had one”, but an embittered Washington never completed another Cor story. Instead he turned his attention to nonfiction, penning a number of “tongue-in-cheek” travel books, including I Got the Wog in Greece (1962) and Dago A-Go-Go (1964), the popularity of which only increased after it was revealed Washington had never set foot in the countries he wrote so scathingly about.
Washington spent two years researching his next project, an exposé of organised religion. Profits in Prophets: How to Make a Million from Founding Your Own Faith was published in July 1968, to modest sales. He had long become inured to critical scorn, but the commercial failure of Profits in Prophets wounded Washington. At the beginning of August 1969, he told his wife that he needed some time alone and travelled to Uluru, where he spent days clambering up and down the sacred Aboriginal site. On his last night there, camping under the stars, he claimed to have experienced a vision of a “Universal Galactic Controller” who existed outside our space-time continuum, and who had chosen Washington to spread his “Transvoidist Gospell” [sic]. The Gospell was found by Washington, neatly typed on foolscap paper, under a rock near his camp site. When Washington returned from Uluru, he wasted no time in spreading the Gospell, publishing pamphlets at his own expense and writing a long Transvoidist manifesto, which he insisted appear in Quarter; this brought about the resignation of the journal’s editor.
Many derided Washington’s conversion, paralleling exactly as it did the instructions he had given in Profits in Prophets. Yet Transvoidism proved popular among the jaded Sydney elite in the dying days of the 1960s. Washington purchased a large property in the Barrington Tops near Gloucester in rural New South Wales, and by April 1970 his movement had attracted over a hundred followers, including the son of a media baron, the wife of a state parliamentarian, and dozens of writers and artists. Transvoidism’s doctrines were shrouded in mystery, but it was rumoured that by following its commandments, those faithful who attained the “fifth level” would be gifted eternal life. Only the most generous of adherents were initiated past the second level; Washington’s wife, Joyce, had reached the first level before being killed in a car accident in May 1970. Her death, Washington told his followers, was a punishment visited on her for her lack of faith in the Universal Galactic Controller.
Washington’s commitment to Transvoidism was tested by the return of his son, Galt, after fighting with the Australian Defence Force in Vietnam. Galt had stepped on a landmine in Hoi An and lost both legs and his left arm. Shortly before news of his son’s injuries reached Australia, Washington had delivered a sermon claiming that the Universal Galactic Controller had bestowed miraculous powers on him, including the ability to cure cancer and to regrow damaged organs and tissue. With Galt’s arrival at the compound in late 1972, Washington’s disciples became increasingly insistent that he exhibit these powers. Washington put off the demonstration throughout 1973, claiming the Universal Galactic Controller did not like to be tested. His prevarication caused at least seventy followers to abandon Transvoidism.
Finally, on 6 February 1974, Washington announced he would perform a regeneration ceremony the next morning. That night all thirty of Washington’s remaining disciples were struck down with severe stomach pains and diarrhoea. At first insisting that this was a sign of the Universal Galactic Controller’s wrath, Washington eventually admitted to having doctored the evening meal with laxatives. He was arrested on 7 March 1974 and charged with reckless endangerment. Washington famously claimed he told the police, “They were giving me the shits, so I returned the favour.” Transcripts of Washington’s police interviews, however, do not include this statement; only his pleas to be released, and his attempts to blame the spirit of his dead wife for the doping, are recorded.
Washington was sentenced to three months in prison. After his release he returned to Gloucester, where Galt was still living. Legal action initiated by his former acolytes had almost bankrupted him and he was forced to sell his property in the Barrington Tops, yet he managed to hold on to Quarter. He toyed with writing another Cor novel, provisionally titled Bad Trip on Cor, but nothing came of it. Despite announcing the beginning or completion of half a dozen novels over the course of the rest of the decade, Washington published nothing, instead living off his son’s disability and army pensions. It was not until 1982 that the short story “The Van[qu]ished”, universally considered to be Washington’s best work, appeared in the February issue of the shortlived but influential Australian science-fiction journal Up Above, Down Under. The story follows the experiences of a soldier in a future war fighting against a race of technologically advanced aliens. In the midst of battle, the soldier is bathed in an intense ray of red light; for a moment he thinks that he has been killed, but to his surprise he is uninjured. It is only weeks later, while on leave on Earth, that the terrible effects of the weapon become apparent. Parts of the soldier start to phase out of reality: first his left leg, then two days later his right, then one of his arms. As he waits for the rest of his body to vanish, the soldier’s only comfort is memories of his mother. But she too has phased out of existence. She is dead. The story ends in the middle of a sentence; the soldier has disappeared.
“The Van[qu]ished” was a radical departure for Washington. It was the first time he had employed a first-person narrator, and his habitual leaden prose style had become translucent, deploying a complex structure, original metaphors and powerful symbolism. The story was unbearably moving, and critics even detected hints of homoeroticism in the description of the men in the narrator’s unit. It has been suggested that the theme of the story, and its new-found subtlety and sensitivity, was Washington’s reaction to the horrific injuries his son suffered in Vietnam. This theory, however, is undercut by Washington’s private letters to Edward Gayle written around the time of the short story’s composition, in which he describes his son as a “mewling, mollycoddled, limp-wristed mummy’s boy, who should have lost his head along with his legs”. “The Van[qu]ished” was selected or inclusion in The Best Australian Science Fiction 1982 and subsequently won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
After winning the Hugo, Washington signed a contract with Tor to write three Ace Star Specials. The first of these, A Kaleidoscope of Rockets (1984), was a postmodern deconstruction of Golden Age SF, while the second, The Sorceress of the Dawn (1986), was an inventive fantasy novel that intelligently explored complex questions of race and sexuality. Both books received excellent, if bewildered, reviews from critics who had long dismissed the writer as a racist hack, and gave Washington his second Hugo and his first Nebula Award. The Cor series was meanwhile enjoying a new surge of popularity with disaffected youth in South America, and in 1988 the entire saga was translated and published by Black and White, a right-wing Argentinean publishing house, with introductions by the Guatemalan science-fiction writer Gustavo Borda. Washington’s reputation soared, at least in South America, and he was invited to contribute stories and essays to a number of the continent’s ultraconservative literary magazines, including The Fourth Reich and History and Thought. Before embarking on the third novel, Washington busied himself on a number of other projects. These included his long-promised autobiography, The Last Shot, co-written with Galt, and opinion pieces, usually protesting against multiculturalism and feminism, which appeared sporadically in the Antipodean newspaper.
The Last Shot was left unfinished. On 14 May 1989 Washington suffered a stroke which left him permanently paralysed, mute and completely dependent on his son. Providentially, Galt had been given full control over Washington’s literary estate just the week before. Quarter, which had seen sales decline for years, was sold to News Limited; the proceeds were used to modify Washington’s house, including the purchase and installation of a chair lift. Galt also hired a full-time nurse, Alan Pieburn, to help him look after the old man.
The years after Washington’s stroke saw Galt emerge from his father’s shadow. In 1990 he brought out his first novel with New Dimensions, How Time Cries, which tells of a son’s desperate attempts to use time travel to prevent the death of his mother. The novel was dedicated to the memory of Galt’s own mother, Joyce Washington. In style, tone, the themes it examined and the skill with which it examined them the novel was eerily reminiscent of his father’s two late works, A Kaleidoscope of Rockets and The Sorceress of the Dawn, and like those two novels it was nominated for, and won, the Hugo and Nebula Awards. In early 1996, Galt founded the “Rand Washington Trust”, a charitable organisation that uses the considerable royalties from the Cor series to fund various progressive causes, from campaigning for gay marriage and Aboriginal land rights to providing legal representation for asylum seekers.
After his stroke, Washington, frail and confined to a wheelchair, became a fixture at demonstrations for social justice throughout Australia, always accompanied by his son and Alan Pieburn. In January 2000 all three flew to the Netherlands, where same-sex marriage had recently been legalised, and Rand Washington served as the best man at his son’s wedding to Pieburn. Although he could not speak, Washington’s emotions were displayed in the tears he shed throughout the ceremony.
Rand Washington died on 24 February 2000 while riding on a float at the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. In accordance with his will, he was buried in Gloucester beside his wife, Joyce, with a copy of Whiteman of Cor in his coffin.
‘Absolutely fascinating and beguilingly strange’
‘Funny, intelligent, touching and hugely entertaining. This book is a joy’
‘I loved the mix of deadpan dryness and epic straight-faced satire. A great achievement’
‘The brilliant Ryan O'Neill is one of Australia's finest imports/exports’
‘Their Brilliant Careers is seductively authentic. These writers never existed, but they should have, so entertaining and eccentric are their peculiar careers and disreputable characters. Cleaving just the right side of believability, Ryan O’Neill plays out his conceit with deadpan wit and narrative verve from title page to index (even the latter contains a subtle joke), creating not just individual personalities but a whole literary culture into which he folds even himself. This book is original, funny and engrossing. You’ll half-believe that cult sci-fi racist Rand Washington, self-obsessed muse Vivian Darkbloom and shameless plagiarist Frederick Stratford were real, and wistfully regret that they aren’t’
‘A funny, moving, intricately layered skewering of Australian literary culture in the guise of a series of biographies’
‘The novel is not dead! Quite simply the best writing of the year: innovative, experimental and, most importantly, hilarious. Read this book!’
Dave Kelly, Blackwell's, Oxford
‘Their Brilliant Careers is a major work of pseudo-bibliographical scholarship. O’Neill has undertaken a Herculean labour – to find the previously hidden links between some of Australia’s greatest (and not-so-great) writers. He has risked the abyss, only to emerge from it stronger. An invaluable contribution to the field’
‘Probably the funniest literary novel since Tristram Shandy, this unmerciful lampooning of ‘extraordinary Australian writers’ – barely disguised, bizarrely intertwined – doubles as a parodic, playful workshop in OzLit, and a portrait of the literary community and its politics’
Professor Jen Webb
‘I loved the mix of vaunting ambition, vendetta, and sheer madness in [this] wicked re-imagining of Australian literary history’
‘For the sheer seductive pleasure of it, this odd comic novel meant as much to me as anything I read last year. It purports to be a collection of linked literary biographies, but the authors it examines are wholly imaginary, and the portraits of them O’Neill offers are by turns lacerating, affectionate, absurd, embittered, tender and self-incriminating. From a few paces back, the book becomes a sort of Spirograph-novel, one whose revelations and cross-revelations keep spinning and overlapping right down to the index”
‘I haven’t read anything quite so clever and playful for a very long time’
‘Blackly hilarious and structurally audacious ... the book is a riot of allusions and in-jokes [but] they are far from its point. Instead, it interrogates a series of questions about authorship … and registers a larger interest in the machinery of literary celebrity. What it offers is something strange and often wonderful, a wildly inventive and formally dazzling reworking of both the tropes and traditions of Australian literature, and by extension Australian culture more generally’
‘Every page – from the dedication to the index – is fraudulent, each biography (or rather story) interweaving with the rest to form a magnificent lie which straight-facedly satirises the narcissism of the literary world and, indeed, the very biographic form it purports to be. If that all sounds a bit clever-clever, worry not. It is also screamingly funny in places, heartrending in others’
‘Their Brilliant Careers … brims with crackerjack wit. Pressure is subtly built; punchlines are explosive’
‘[Ryan O’Neill] offers a book that is a piss-take, a celebration, a revisionist history and, perhaps most impressively, exceedingly good fun’
‘Their Brilliant Careers is a top-to-tail fiction that trades in plausibility. 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’
‘You have to admire O’Neill’s delicious bravura. He’s been one of the few short fiction writers of recent years willing to play around with the form’s possibilities … Apart from the fact there are more funny lines in O’Neill’s 288 pages than there are likely to be in the entirety of Australian literature elsewhere this year, the profiles are woven smartly together, as the characters’ fates and careers intertwine’
‘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’
‘Imagine Douglas Adams, Jorge Luis Borges and Flann O’Brien getting together to create the most clever, fun, witty book ever made. It’s bloody marvellous. Read it’
‘Superb on so many levels, which makes it a joy to read from start to finish’
‘A spoof literary history which contains so many characters and situations that will be painfully and hilariously recognisable to writers and publishers the world over’
‘Bonkers but brilliant fun’
‘Razor-sharp satire presented with dry wit and laugh out loud humour. An inspired concept...’
‘A witty, addictive, smart read. This book will definitely not let you go once you start reading’
Here’s the coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald as Ryan O’Neill won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction for Their Brilliant Careers.
Good Reading magazine interviews Ryan O'Neill here.
Read an entertaining Q&A with Ryan O’Neill for the Australian Book Review.
A diary story from The Herald, in Ryan's home city of Glasgow, on the trials of having a Scottish accent Down Under.
Blogger Jackie Law discusses Their Brilliant Careers on BBC Radio Wiltshire.