Richard Flanagan’s latest novel First person, which I did with my reading group, is a challenge to read. By this I don’t mean it’s “hard” to read but that it requires careful attention to pin down. On the surface, its subject is straightforward. It’s the story of struggling as-yet-unpublished writer, Kif Kehlmann, who accepts the job of ghost-writing a memoir for a con-man, Siegried Heidl. It’s autobiographically-based in that Richard Flanagan himself did just this for the fraudster or imposter John Friedrich, who headed the National Safety Council of Australia. However, the novel takes off in directions far removed from Flanagan’s life. At least, so I believe, though as Kif very quickly learns, how do we know what to believe! Who to trust!?
Anyhow, why write this now, 25 or more years after the events? Well, the title might give you a hint, as well as the subject matter … but, it is a tricksy book, starting from its very nature as a pseudo-memoir about a ghost-written memoir. If you know Flanagan, you’ll know he’s setting himself – and us – up for quite a ride. It’s a complicated ride, and perhaps got a little sidetracked at times, but is nonetheless fascinating …
The story describes, in Kif’s first person (ha!) voice, his experience of ghostwriting Heidl’s memoir and its aftermath. The ghostwriting task doesn’t go well, with Heidl evading Kif’s attempts to obtain the information he needs. Flanagan describes this with the wonderfully evocative language that we love reading him for. “I may as well have used a pair of scissors to pick up spilt mercury”, he writes of his early attempts to get some facts. He tries a different method: ask some direct questions, write up his understanding of the answers, and then check his version with Heidl:
The more outlandish, the less related my story was to the few, vague facts he had outlined, the more ludicrous I was, the more pleased Heidl seemed, and the more he would claim that it accorded exactly with his own memory.
After which, apparently, Heidl would contact 60 Minutes or some other program or newspaper, to line up “paid interviews about himself on the basis of such inventions.”
You can perhaps see where this is going in terms of my Why now question. It’s that Heidl (Friedrich) was continuously reinventing himself. Sound familiar? Heidl lived “in a constant state of transformation”. The end result, as Kif sees it, is that Heidl, “the great story maker … was everywhere present in his creations but nowhere visible”. He was not, as Kif tells it, “so much a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making”. This narcissism, this solipsistic way of being in the world, this mania for self-invention, makes this book relevant now.
“Trust is the oil that greases the machine of the world”
The other main issue relating to the Why Now question concerns trust. Heidl was a con-man, which means of course that he played on people’s trust. And my, he did it with bells on. He managed to defraud banks of $700 million by, for example, convincing them that he had a fleet of shipping containers (CIRILs) full of the technology and equipment required for responding to disasters. Heidl says, continuing the heading quote above:
Even people we hate we trust. That’s how it is. And, amazingly, mostly it works. The bankers trusted that the CIRILs were real, that ASO was real, until finally it was real. Like you trust the mechanic did service the car or that the bank is honest; like you trust that the people who run the world know what they’re doing …
Every day now, every single day it seems, we are confronted with organisations and individuals failing to live up to our trust – the churches, the banks, the police, the politicians. This is why, it’s patently obvious, Flanagan wrote this story now.
The novel, then, is about what happens when we buy into this world of make-believe. And it’s not pretty. In the book it is most vividly exposed, at the personal level anyhow, through what happens to Kif during and after his writing of the book. The more time he spends with Heidl, the more he finds himself, against his will, being drawn into Heidl’s world and starting to “think like Heidl”, until finally “all that divided him from me evaporated.” You’ll have to read the book yourself, if you haven’t already, to see how this plays out.
“The novel is dead”
The book is also an apologia for fiction. Like Flanagan, Kif was a struggling novelist when he accepted the ghost-writing job. It’s something that Heidl regularly throws back in his face, whenever Kif questions his truths. Why is a fiction writer, Heidl asks him, concerned about truth and facts when what he does in fact is lie? Hmm … I’d tell him there’s lying and there’s story, and that the former obfuscates while the latter illuminates, but he probably wouldn’t believe me!
Near the end, an entertaining (there’s much humour in the book in fact) but significant set piece occurs when, visiting New York decades later, Kif meets a young writer. She’s in her late twenties and has just published the third volume of her autobiography. The novel, she says, “as a mode of narrative“, is dead:
It’s fake, inventing stories as if they explain things … Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag […] Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have.
Kif says he doesn’t agree … and nor does Flanagan, which he demonstrates most obviously through the very act of writing this story as a novel not a memoir. Fiction, he shows, facilitates the exploration of alternatives, the asking of questions.
Overall, I loved Flanagan’s exploration of our current mania for self and of the issues surrounding truth and our desire (need, even) to trust. I also enjoyed Flanagan’s language. But when I got to the end, I couldn’t make it fully cohere. This is partly to do with the breadth of targets and topics, of which I’ve only touched the surface here. It felt at times that Flanagan had a few points to make – scores to settle even – regarding, for example, publishing and writing in Australia. These confused the main thrust a little – though maybe I have conflated Kif with his author! Finally, the second part of the novel, post Heidl’s death, could have been tighter. Kif’s life diverges significantly from that of his model, Flanagan, and is explored at some length. It’s perfectly logically developed, but the “message” started to feel a little laboured.
Nonetheless, First person is well worth reading – for its (novelistic) insight into that time in Flanagan’s life not to mention into a fascinating episode in Australia’s history; for its intelligent exploration of some critical issues that don’t seem to be going away; and for Flanagan’s marvellous prose. I should probably read it again.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) loved this book.
North Sydney: Knopf, 2017