Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 1, 2017

First Person, by Richard Flanagan

It has taken me ages to read Richard Flanagan’s new novel First Person because there is so much to think about within its pages.  But as you can tell from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week, it’s a book that has a comic thread while also pursuing much darker issues.

I had long forgotten John Friedrich who as Executive Director of the National Safety Council of Australia (NSCA*) in the 1980s, defrauded the banks of nearly $300 million dollars, but his story was astonishing news, even in the 1980s when we had become used to corporate fraud.  As I recall it, the NSCA was a national search and rescue outfit, which impressed us all with its high profile rescues and its gee-whiz equipment, and we were all flabbergasted to learn that all but one of the containers full of hi-tech equipment either did not exist, or were empty. What I did not know was that my literary hero Richard Flanagan was ghost-writing Friedrich’s memoirs at the time of his suicide (four days after he was charged) and that the book, Codename Iago was published posthumously.  (And sank like a stone). How could I have known about that?  It still doesn’t appear on his Goodreads page!

Out of this experience as an unsuccessful ghost-writer, Flanagan has crafted a cunning pseudo-memoir of a wily conman called Siegfried (Ziggy) Heidl and his memoirist the hapless Kif Kehlmann.  Kif is a penniless wannabe author in Hobart, struggling to get by on next-to-nothing with his wife Suzy and small daughter Bo.  While Flanagan writes this section with sardonic humour, it reads as if it’s from the heart: it’s tough for this young couple and mortgage stress is the least of it.  Everything they have is second-hand and cobbled together from junk at the tip.  Simple pleasures are what they enjoy because they can’t afford any other kind, and there’s no relief on the horizon because Kif has an implacable desire to be a writer and he has Suzy’s enduring support – her faith in him is unshakeable.

But Kif’s novel, (as we saw in the Sensational Snippet that I posted last week), is not going well, and he gets the sack from his job as a doorman; the mortgage payments are pressing and Suzy is pregnant with twins – so much against his better judgement he takes up the offer of a ghost-writing job.  He’s rather liverish about Tasmania, and not much nicer about Melbourne, where he has a fly-in-fly-out existence while he tries to write what turns out to be a most elusive memoir:

I was Australian, but I didn’t really know anything about Australia, having grown up in Tasmania, about which no one knows anything, least of all Tasmanians to whom it is only ever a growing mystery.  Melbourne was a confident town, by its own estimate, if few others, a great city, which believed it was born out of gold rushes rather than by invasion by Van Diemonian settlers a few years prior to the discovery of gold, men who had made their mark running death squads on the Tasmanian frontier hunting down remnant Tasmanian Aboriginals and massacring them at night around their campfires.

Some Tasmanians said Melbourne was like Tasmania, only bigger, which now struck me as stupid as saying Tasmania was like New York, only smaller, which was just as true and just as stupid.  Really, the world was full of stupid things yet without them what would we have to talk about?  (p.17)

[I suspect that Flanagan has read James Boyce’s magnificent 1835, the founding of Melbourne and the conquest of Australia.  In a book about truth and lies and how we delude ourselves, Flanagan’s demolition of Melbourne’s sanitised history and its founder John Batman is verifiable truth.]

In his naïveté, Kif thinks that ghost-writing a memoir is easy, but he hasn’t counted on Heidl being such a slippery customer.  The deadline is tight: the book has to be finished before Heidl goes on trial for the $700million fraud, and Suzy’s getting near to term – and twins often come early, don’t they?  Before long it’s only the promise of a cash payment to ease their financial crisis that keeps him going, because Heidl – still apparently masterminding deals and maybe things more menacing than that – can’t be cajoled into providing his memoirist with the requisite details of his life story.

Heidl is a strange character indeed.  Impossible to pin down – not even about where he was born – he meanders through these tense days spouting Nietzschean philosophical thoughts* about the nature of truth and lies, having oblique conversations with lawyers and publicists and also new dupes or fellow conspirators with whom he says he’s setting up a space station in Queensland.  He disappears off to meetings whenever he likes, leaving Kit frustrated and enraged and desperately trying to cobble together something resembling an outline for the publisher.

[*Heidl makes many references to Tebbe too, someone Kif also seems to know of.  Professor Google has failed me: does anyone know if Tebbe is a real person – a philosopher?  a cultural commentator?  a corporate psycho-babbler? Maybe it’s a case of Flanagan playing a trick on a hapless reader…]

The publisher, Gene Paley, provides Flanagan with an opportunity to satirise the publishing industry, and the ubiquitous memoir in particular.  Paley represents the corporatized industry that is dominated by profit rather than the intrinsic worth of books.  Paley is suspicious of anything ‘literary’ because it doesn’t sell.  And he won’t leave his writer alone to write the book: to tight deadlines he demands outlines and chapters and words he can mine for publicity, not to mention hounding Kif to get Ziggy’s signed release attesting to the veracity of the memoir.  And no, there’s no advance either, so Kif stays penniless until he delivers.  His runners are literally falling apart.

It seems improbable, but the reader finds the narrative tension almost unbearable.  It’s only about the writing of a book after all, and if Kif succeeds in writing it, not one worth reading at that.  But as the deadlines of Kif’s life converge, Heidl continues Heidling (a new word, very handy for describing dissemblers IMO!) and Kif finds that Heidl’s intrusions into his mind and his life are blurring his entire identity.  And there is no one, not even Suzy, who can share his pain.

I wasn’t expecting Flanagan to reach the heights of visceral prose that he achieved in The Narrow Road to the Deep North when writing about the Burma Railway – but he does, describing that most everyday of human events, the birth of his children.  My recollection of my time in the labour ward is that I tended to be a bit self-absorbed and paid very little attention to the emotions of the husband beside me until it was all over, so Kif’s awareness of his wife’s protracted agony and the risks to mother and baby were a revelation to me. Advised by the doctor that unless Suzy could push harder they would have to do a caesarean and even then there is no guarantee that the babies will survive, Kif is beside himself:

She began a low moaning, a strange animal sound, and I was again losing her; she was tumbling into some void as her body heaved and convulsed.  Her face was scarcely recognisable.  I leant in close, telling her again she could do it.  But it was becoming clear she couldn’t.  I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see the handsome doctor.  I walked with him to a far corner of the room.

Your wife is exhausted, he said, sniffed, and continued.  The babies are increasingly stressed.  We have to operate.

Five minutes, I begged.  Just five more, that’s all I’m asking.

I went back to Suzy.  I pointlessly wiped her face once more, and once more I begged her.  She was very far away.  Her whole being seemed caught in some primal struggle that was not hers to share.  She suddenly screamed in such a way that I had never heard before, deeply, terribly, as much an unrooted gasp of horror as a primeval cry.  It was as if from somewhere deep within she was finding a strength additional to all she had spent, summoning some will to push her exhausted flesh further.

And as that awful screaming continued – a sound suspended between a moan of death and a plea for pity, an acceptance of what life was and a rage against it – as a mood of terse attention took hold of the room, everyone continued on as if it were everyday work, which it was also, and still measurements were taken and still vital signs were checked, and still people chatted softly.(p.240)

Richard Flanagan isn’t an author for everyone – I’ve read two spiteful reviews of First Person which I won’t dignify by referencing them.  They are typical Australian Tall Poppy efforts – more about taking down the winner of the Booker Prize than attending to the novel, patronising Flanagan for struggling over a work to follow the international success consistently denied to him by the Miles Franklin judges, and either out of ignorance or intent, completely missing the point of the book.  One of these reviews, judging by the length of the initial commentary compared to the brevity of references to the content of the book, may well have been written by someone who hasn’t read it, or merely skimmed it looking for a quotable moment.  The other is a jealous diatribe by a middleweight author, notable only for the way its puerile, vituperative style contrasts with the delicate writing in his own novel.

But I would say this: First Person deserves close attention and patience, and my advice would be not to read it just because it’s by a Booker winner.  Read it because you enjoy the meditative experience of reading an author who never fails to provoke. Fans of Richard Flanagan know that this is true of almost all his books.

  • NB: The NSCA reinvented itself after the Friedrich debacle and is (as it was before his disastrous time in the top job) a perfectly respectable outfit offering workplace health and safety training.

Update: Other (intelligent) reviews

  • Peter Keneally at the SMH
  • Sunil Badani at The Australian (Sorry, this one is paywalled, but you may be able to access it if you haven’t exceeded the free limit.  Badani, whose PhD was about literary frauds, noticed something I missed, though I knew which novel Flanagan/Kif was referring to when he says that his finally finished novel – rejected because it did not fit into any recognisable school of Australian literature and about a drowning man having visions of his life – was not something of any originality or appeal:

Yet, despite — or perhaps because of — this increasing artifice, life continues to imitate art. Death of a River Guide, the completio­n of which was paid for by the ghostwriting job, was beaten­ for the 1995 Miles Franklin by the most notorious fraud in Aust­ralian literary history: Helen Demi­denko/Darville’s The Hand That Signed the Paper.

There’s also a review at the Australian Book Review (paywalled) but I haven’t read because I stopped subscribing to the ABR when they stopped reviewing mainly books and writing and transferred their attention to the arts in general.

Update (later the same day): Lo and behold, The Guardian has just published an essay by Flanagan called ‘The corrosion of truth in these strange times is terrifying’.  It’s not the usual ‘genesis of the novel’ story, it’s more than that.

Author: Richard Flanagan
Title: First Person
Publisher: Knopf, (Penguin Random House Australia) 2017
ISBN: 9780143787242 (hbk.)
Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh

Available from Fishpond: First Person

 


Responses

  1. The NSCA had connections with Victorian conservation department where I worked (because of fire fighting on public land). So I might have met John Friedrich in that capacity. I remember being shocked at both his suicide and his massive fraud at the time.

    • He conned just about everyone, from what I recall!

  2. smiled at your reviews of the reviewers and at your spirited defence of the novel, which it needs in view of the other reviewers…

    • Meowww Lisa (loved it)

      • I retrieved the review that peeved me most from the bin, and measured the column space. Four half-page columns, only one of which plus one paragraph is actually about this book. Wasting almost three columns on other stuff is not worthy of a professional reviewer getting paid to say something intelligent and discerning about the book. It’s ok for him to dislike it, but the critique ought to attend to the book and to demonstrate some understanding of modern literature!

  3. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  4. I didn’t like The Narrow Road, not its historical fiction nor its bushfire, but I thought Gould’s Book of Fish was ok-ish, it was a while ago. I’ll read this one if it pops up in front of me – I like fiction about writing – but I still haven’t started Heather Rose, or Taboo, or … (and I still like ABR, if I have a beef it is reviews of non-Australian books).

    • Yeah, I had a long-standing beef about that too, why they were devoting space to (mainly) American books that were already being reviewed everywhere else and not even interesting ones from Asia or Europe, I do not know. But it was reviews of theatre and dance in Sydney that tipped me over into unsubscribing. *chuckle* Maybe they think there’s so much quality reviewing of OzLit online that they can abandon the field to the unpaid volunteers, but I think they should be ashamed of themselves. Australian authors need them, and it’s not too much to ask that there be one journal dedicated to reviewing their work.

  5. Thank you for this brilliant review. I also loved this book and was disappointed by the same two reviews. Richard Flanagan is one of Australia’s best writers and this is another outstanding offering from him. I was not interested at all in this particular subject for a story, but was floored by his brilliant story telling and the way he can put so much feeling, and emotion into a simple sentence.

    • Hi Tyyni, thanks, I’m delighted to know that you liked it too. The man is pure genius, as far as I’m concerned!

  6. I’ve skimmed your review, Lisa, but will read it properly once I’ve read the book. It will be the first one to come off the pile when I’ve finished my Giller obligations.

    • It’s available in the UK already? That’s great:)

      • I imported mine cos I wanted a signed copy. It arrived about 3 weeks ago. It’s now out in U.K.

  7. I was dithering over this one but you’ve convinced me. Thank you. The Tall Poppy syndrome sounds all too familiar.

  8. I can’t believe I have to wait until April for this book. Your review has made me awfully impatient.

    • Oh, that is a very long wait, ridiculously long. I was tapping my foot with impatience from the moment I first heard about it, so I sympathise!

    • PS I tried commenting on your blog about ‘I am a Truck’ but although I’ve refreshed the page and tried twice, it won’t let me.

      • Oh dear, I’ll get in touch with typepad and see if they can fix it. Thanks for letting me know. I’m curious about your thoughts on it.

  9. […] First Person, by Richard Flanagan […]

  10. […] by Peter Carey (Penguin Random House) The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin) First Person by Richard Flanagan (Penguin Random House) Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia) […]

  11. […] (2006); the exquisite Wanting (2008); his masterpiece The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) and First Person […]

  12. […] First Person, by Richard Flanagan […]


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