Ryan O’Neill, An Australian short story (#Review)

If you haven’t heard of this story by Ryan O’Neill, you are in for a surprise. It was first published in The Lifted Brow, an online literary magazine, in 2012. Its title tells you nothing, but, before I tell you more, I should introduce Ryan O’Neill for those who haven’t heard of him.

I had heard of O’Neill, but I hadn’t read him, which was one reason I chose this story to read. He came to my notice when his tricksy novel, Their brilliant careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers, appeared on the scene in 2016. It was shortlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin and NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award that same year. As publisher Black Inc writes on its website, it’s “a hilarious novel in the guise of sixteen biographies of (invented) Australian writers”. You can see what I mean about tricksy.

Well, hold that thought, because his earlier-written short story, “An Australian short story” is tricksy in a different way. Instead of inventing sixteen Australian authors, this story is entirely composed of lines from short stories and poems by Australian writers, written between 1850 to 2011. The source works are an eclectic bunch, and include writers as diverse as Henry Lawson and Angelo Loukakis, as Rosa Praed and Thea Astley, and so on. You get the gist.

There are 149 of them, every one footnoted so you know exactly where they have come from. Some are as short as one word, such as “Goodbye” (from JMS Foster’s “I do love to be beside the seaside”), “–What?” (from Kate Grenville’s “Having a wonderful time”) and “Yes”, at least twice (from H. Drake-Brockman’s “The price” and Morris Lurie’s “Running nicely”, for example). You gotta laugh!

Others, though, are longer, like “And she lay beside him, separated by knowledge which he did not share, of something sinister; of wounding, of unhappiness, and of pain” (from “Winter Nelis” by Elizabeth Jolley).

There is a plot, and it concerns a couple, an unnamed husband and wife living in “a plain weatherboard house” (which comes from Peter Carey’s “American dreams”) whose “solidity was late-nineteenth century, as the town’s was” (from Hal Porter’s “Gretel”). So, we are in a country town, not a city. And then, a few sentences on, we discover that our couple are on “a farm, if such it could be called”. He, 42-years-old, is a writer, and is uncertain about whether he is “happy with her”, as in fact is she likewise re him.

The story reads seamlessly, albeit with a strange other-worldly feeling, but this comes not so much from the method of construction as from the fact that the people and places aren’t named. It’s also quite a melancholic piece, which speaks, I think, to the Australian short story tradition that it draws from and pays homage to. It is clearly Australian, O’Neill has called his story “Australian” and makes it very clear with references early on to parrots, gums and she-oaks. But, it is not a traditional farm story, because our husband is a writer, so this Australian story is about a writer, one struggling with his novel and frustrated at a perceived lack of support from “her”, while she feels she’s given him enough. It’s inspired and adds a wonderful layer to what O’Neill is doing here.

Now, I was intrigued about this story, so I went searching, and found a piece by O’Neill on writing this story. He explains how he, a Scottish-born Australian, came to write the story. He discusses his extensive reading of Australian short stories, and his thoughts about the strong realist tradition that runs through them. He sees (saw then) experimentation not being a strong feature of Australian short story writing, but does identify pockets of such occurring. It’s a great article for anyone interested in Australian short stories.

I was particularly interested in his statement at the end of the piece about his intention:

I had originally intended for this piece to be a satire. “An Australian short story” was titled “The Australian short story” for a long time, to suggest the idea that this piece, with its bush setting, and sentimental love story, was somehow representative of a certain uniformity in Australia short fiction. But as I finished the story I was surprised and pleased to see it had developed into more of a celebration than a satire.

I like this because as I was thinking about the story, I wanted to call it a satire or spoof, but it felt too subtle for that. “Celebration”, plus, we could say, commentary on, is a good way to view his story.

Coinciding with the publication of Their brilliant careers, its publisher Black Inc posted on its website, O’Neill’s Five tips for writing a short story. Tip no. 2 is that he believes

it is impossible to write a decent short story unless you have read a lot of great short stories. Try to read as many short stories as you can, and not only from contemporary writers. Read Poe, Maupassant, James, Chekhov, Carver, Mansfield, Borges, Woolf, Kipling, Barth, Salter, O’Connor (Frank and Flannery), Salinger, Yates, Jolley and Greene. These men and women are the greatest teachers a short story writer can have. You’ll learn all you need to know about structure, characterisation, setting, plot and everything else, and you’ll also have a great time. With any luck, something of their stories will stay with you when you write your own.

You certainly couldn’t argue that he doesn’t practise what he preaches, could you!

Ryan O’Neill
“An Australian short story”
in The best of The Lifted Brow. Volume 2 (ed. Alexander Bennetts)
Brow Books, 2017
ISBN: 9780994606877