Something real in fiction: on Ryan O’Neill and Lynne Tillman

Reading ‘nonfiction’ can be like staring into a dark hole dug in the side of reality with just a penlight. The writer has excavated reality’s detail and arranged it neatly into words for our examination. Reading fiction, on the other hand, can be like staring at the stars for signs of the future: luminous and beautiful but not particularly illuminating, unless you’re an astronomer.

But Ryan O’Neill’s hyperbolically titled Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers, shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award (a happy coincidence given its allusion to Franklin’s own My Brilliant Career of 1901) and 2017 winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for fiction, and Lynne Tillman’s masterful The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories are more a window into the world from the room of fiction.

These are two works not satisfied to sit within the prefabricated rooms of previous literature. They are instead intent upon redistributing time and space in fiction’s world and asking the question of what is conceivable, rather than plausible. O’Neill offers us, as Drusilla Modjeska puts it in Exiles at Home, an ‘escape a perception of that generation [of Australian writers], its writing and their heritage, as worthy but … rather dun coloured’, but he also offers far more.

Tillman’s collection is less an escape than an insistence on the way in which art – far from mere commodity, instrument of cultural power, or subservient to the task of ‘getting real’ – is engaged in the project of giving new forms to life. New ways of thinking and feeling the world can be coaxed from Tillman’s pages, fulfilling a condition that philosopher Jacques Rancière identifies in Mute Speech:

For literature to exist it must be given its own land, a reality adequate to its language, a world whose sensuous forms correspond to the forms drawn by a language that is only concerned ‘with itself’, that is, which is only concerned with the reflection of essential forms and their relations.

When literary forms let language breathe, the language is subtracted from instrumental value, or from the weight of having to teach us things. The words take on an anarchic and egalitarian quality, wandering into the lives of those for whom they were perhaps never intended.


The Ideal of the real

O’Neill’s My Brilliant Careers initially appears as a lightly comic reconstruction of Australian literary history. Its biographical subjects are built in close proximity to actual figures, both local and international. Rand Washington, the opening figure, is a frothing, toxic mix of L Ron Hubbard, HP Lovecraft and Ayn Rand. Meanwhile, historian Edward Gayle reflects the antagonists of the ‘history wars’, Keith Windschuttle and Geoffrey Blainey, and their blindness to what Henry Reynolds called ‘the whispering in our hearts’ – the violence of European colonisation of Indigenous Australian land. O’Neill offers a biographical explanation, giving Gayle a repressed Indigenous heritage, as though a synecdoche for the Great Australian Silence.

But these examples are ‘real’ characters only in terms of their adequateness to Australian history as we know it. O’Neill also presses into the interstitial spaces between fiction and reality. For instance, his Donald Chapman is an almost word-for-word remake of Ern Malley, just a few decades early. Invented to disparage modernist literary forms, both Chapman and Malley outstrip their ultimately conservative falseness and become more real – more valuable in literary history – than their unwitting inventors.

In the poetry O’Neill invents for the fictional inventors are scattered clues of writers’ relationship to language. One, ‘The Thaumaturgist’s Complaint’ begins:

As I am made a killing instrument

Lust and decay vie in my heart’s dark race.

The pseudonymous writers cannot help but expose themselves. Ern Malley writes in ‘Night Piece’ of the automatism of the hoax playing ‘upon my trembling intuitive arm’, while ‘Palinode’ turns itself back on the writers with a ‘snap of your wrists / Like a stalk that entangles’.

It is as if fiction cannot help but turn a raised middle finger to those who take it to task for being unreal.

Obviously in both cases, the hoaxer’s intent is to cast dull, disparaging light on modernism’s wandering letter. In Michael Heyward’s excellent recounting The Ern Malley Affair, James Macauley, an Ern Malley progenitor, laments that modern poetry ‘cannot present us with any ideal realm of existence – all we can find is the operation of fantasy in the real world’. Modern-day critics, too, succumb to the trope of judging Their Brilliant Careers by whether it is adequate to reality, calling it a ‘top-to-tail fiction that trades in plausibility’.

By contrast, in both Malley and O’Neill’s Chapman hoaxes, the fiction’s anarchic language outstrips the putatively real inventors. It is the intervention in the fabric of what is perceivable as real via fiction – appalling to anyone for whom reality is, somehow, already adequate.

Yet O’Neill approaches the desire to turn art into reality with caution. Francis McVeigh, a socialist pamphleteer, is consumed by the reality his fiction fails to hide, disappearing into the gulags despite his naïve belief in Stalin’s Soviet Union. His rewriting of Orwell’s Animal Farm from the point of view of Squealer, the propagandist, reflects the collapse of the literary autonomy into a blunt instrument of ideological argument or wilful insensitivity to the ways in which reality might be framed by and for others. McVeigh’s assertion of fantasy kills him, fictionally and literally.

The assumption of reality’s mastery over fiction is inverted by Vivian Darkbloom. Darkbloom presumes to reside not over reality but over fiction as a ‘self-proclaimed muse’. Her maxim: ‘To write takes talent. To be written about takes genius.’ And she inserts herself like malignant pox throughout Their Brilliant Careers but it cannot save her from ridicule. In an Andy Warhol exhibition, a wall quote from the patron Loti Smorgon echoes Darkbloom’s insistence on being more important than the art they patronise. Smorgon says, after sitting for a portrait for Warhol, ‘Looking back, it was a wonderful experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world …’ Their fantasy of priority over the art they pay for papers over the irony of the portraits and the humorous jibes played against Darkbloom by those who are forced to insert her into their fictions.


The fiction of mere words

The eruption of fiction into reality is only one level of Their Brilliant Careers. Fiction is at it fullest when unreeling the very apparatus that gives it life: language.

There is ample opportunity for word play with Arthur ruhtrA. Founder of Kangaroulipo – an amalgam of the Oulipo and Jindyworobak literary movements – ruhtrA’s novel Long Time No See is written without the letter ‘c’. Achieving untimely publication just after George Perec’s Disparation (1969), which performed the greater feat of leaving out ‘e’, Perec quips upon learning of ruhtrA’s death by overdose of ecstasy that he ‘could not comprehend how someone could die from an overdose of e.’

But the play of language is also a more consequential matter. One important writer, Lydia McGinnis, finds herself smudged out by her belligerent and bullish editor, Robert Bush. Ultimately, she cannot find room for herself in the prose she herself wrote. The revenge upon the editor is multiple: a typo (intentional or not) describing McGinnis’ suffering at the hands of Bush’s editing concludes, ‘there hing [sic] left to live for.’ Vandals also edit Bush’s gravestone to condemn his mistreatment.

Matilda Young, a poet and feminist, metes out linguistic revenge upon her sexist opponents. After being discovered using pseudonyms to publish, she is attacked and denounced by her own husband. She anonymously circulates a poem called ‘Fancy of the Overflow’:

I couldn’t hardly feel him, why did Mother Nature deal him

Such a shriveled little fellow hanging limp down there below?

I wanted him to ram me but instead he cried out ‘Damn me!

Tis the first time this’s happened to the Fancy of the Overflow.’

Upon finding acclaim later in life, Young sets about inventing spaces for literature like a course on Australian women writers. Though this may be a rose-tinted vision of history, O’Neill is self-consciously gathering space for imaginative possibilities. He blows glowing glitter around the outline of what history could be: true and animating, a perspective into possibilities that we need and want for our own cultural life.


The literary detective

The small, rewarding details of Their Brilliant Careers play on the connection between biography and detection, turning lives into mysteries and letting them occasionally be lost to the language that surpasses us all. Biography is often founded on the hierarchy of lives over language. But what the literary scholar and biographer Rachel Deverall manages to achieve is the discovery of what might have been lived. Her insistence on uncovering biographical secrets among O’Neill’s fictional characters is surpassed by her attentiveness to the literary art, a detail Drusilla Modjeska laments lacking in her own study, reflecting that ‘there’s not much analysis of how the imagination works … I had ignored the history of writing itself.’

Absences in the text and lapses in the author’s detachment from the narrative offer the reader the role of literary detective. Like Deverall (an exemplary sleuth), we are invited to discover for ourselves the dusty corners of Australian literature, where possibilities lie obscured.

Deverall takes after Walter Benjamin’s historical detective, who, shuffling through the past,

dreamed that [s]he was in a world which was not only far-off in the distance and time, but which was also a better one … in which things were free from the bondage of being usefu l… Living means leaving traces … The detective story appeared, which investigated these traces.

But these traces are left in language, and, by writing their way into the story, the characters always risk being lost to writing itself, to the invented fictions that end up exceeding us in their reality.


A fictional eye on reality

Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism, in The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories, is a personification of that anarchic, egalitarian language of literature. Supplying another detective to do the sleuthing Walter Benjamin imagined, Madame Realism wanders the artistic terrain of America and beyond. With her fictional eye, she dredges from the myths and inventions of history and art something true of modern experience. At the Metropolitan Museum in New York, she notices the awed ‘Oohs and aahs from the crowd’ but hears with equal importance the boredom of a woman saying ‘I can’t see very well.’

If O’Neill’s characters are worried about their own status with regard to language, Madame Realism is doubly worried. In ‘Madame Realism: A Fairy Tale’, she undergoes a series of transformations to her uncanny literariness. She is self-reflective to the point of abstraction, and ‘Even as a guide to herself, if that’s what she was, she couldn’t offer certainty.’ Abstraction, however, need not be obscure. Later, she remarks that she ‘couldn’t decide what was trivial, insincere, fake, inauthentic, frivolous, superficial, and gaudy; she herself was all of these.’ Madame Realism is ‘soothed’ by the thought that

I am always fiction. And now, she remarked aloud, reviewing herself, I do not have to pretend to be a tabula rasa, to pretend that I don’t have a past, that I don’t have a history. She turned herself to another page, imagining that she was ‘taking a page from this book’.

By turns, Madame Realism becomes what she is. Each word simultaneously creates and dissipates her. Reading her is like watching language come to life – it is a realisation of our fictiveness. That is a central part of her experience:

by misplacing things I am actually displacing things, displacing what I think I know, the familiar. The way art does. She wrote invisibly in her margin: If art has a purpose, is it to point to the absence of invention?

These fictions aren’t replacing anything, or trying to convince us that what is real is in fact a fiction or what is fiction is in fact real. They are proposing instead that the real is made by what we make of it; some call it ‘fiction’, others ‘art’. It is the condition of our shared and future worlds, the possibility of different ones.


Fiction, imagination, power

Art challenges us, like in the immigration test Madame Realism encounters in ‘The Museum of Hyphenated Americans’ and the question ‘Whose intelligence was being tested?’ Art’s meaning matters in the composition of perceivable reality: ‘What does it mean to be hyphenated?’, she asks. She, of all people, can see what it means to invent oneself on the border between counting and not.

If, she writes in her notebook, we gain ‘access in representation only’, then representation matters. Art lives at the border of what can be seen, felt, heard or touched and also what cannot. Its power is its ability to create meaning, not from nowhere but by recomposing reality – this is what O’Neill and Tillman so skilfully do in fiction.

Our very notion of reality must be displaced in order to achieve this feat of meaning. The journalist Philip Gourevitch, in his book We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, writes: ‘All at once … something we could only have imagined was upon us – and we could still only imagine it … That is what fascinates me most in existence: the peculiar necessity of imagining what is, in fact, real.’

Madame Realism sees the same problem: ‘Without access to power’s hidden manifestations, visibility is tantamount to reality, a possible explanation for the authority of images.’ Madame Realism, as I have suggested, is like a detective. But she exists in the world of fiction, and so detects both the imagination and reality. She is an activist of the imagination, throwing words into the world from somewhere invisible.

Madame Realism possesses an agency over her own fictional domain, hardly needing Tillman’s admittedly virtuosic creative conduction. She moves freely in her words, repudiating falsity by the strength of her fiction. Similarly, Their Brilliant Careers testifies to the rebellious surge of characters and the language in which they (and we) are made and unmade. Tillman lets Madame Realism play out her powers of fantasy before turning to her powers of reflection and imagination: ‘Maybe, she told herself, she would give up some of her fantasies and replace them with others. But could she?’

Can we?


Image: crop from cover of Their Brilliant Careers.

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer, academic and unionist whose work has been published in Overland, Arena, Index Journal, Memo Review and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique.

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