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First Person

Review

First Person

Richard Flanagan is the Man Booker Prize-winning author of THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, a brilliant story set in World War II and present-day Australia. In his new novel, FIRST PERSON, he tackles a very different subject: the price a writer must pay for success. Based on his own early experience as a ghostwriter for a notorious con man and his life as a fiction writer, this book feels very personal, as though Flanagan is trying to work through a series of conflicting ideas and emotions. The result is a novel that --- depending on the reader’s interest in the interior life of writers --- is both fascinating and frustrating.

When the story begins, Kif Kehlmann is a young, unpublished Tasmanian writer in dire financial straits. He and his wife, Suzy, have one child and are now expecting twins. When the opportunity arises to ghostwrite the memoir of a notorious con man, he finds himself in Melbourne with a $10,000 contract and six weeks to complete the book. His subject, Siegfried “Ziggy” Heidl, purports to be his “mate,” but as the novel progresses, he also becomes his nemesis.

"[W]hat makes this impressive 'memoir' most absorbing is Flanagan’s ability to turn Kif’s unsettling life experience into an allegory for the creative process."

Heidl proves to be the ultimate unreliable narrator, with tales of murders, the CIA and even NASA, and over time Kif (who calls his elliptical stories “heidling”) becomes both obsessed and repulsed by him. The angst that he feels is a combination of worry that the book will never get finished, concern for his wife in the last weeks of her pregnancy, fear that he will never be a successful writer, and horror at the murky world that Heidl represents. Where is the line between truth and lies, and what purpose, if any, do they serve? Why does Heidl believe there is no line?

The book is written as Kif’s own memoir, which goes beyond his tortured interactions with Heidl to tackle a range of existential questions. But what makes FIRST PERSON so riveting is Flanagan’s writing. Of trying to retell Heidl’s stories, Kif remembers, “I might begin cantilevering out a flying buttress of clauses that could bear the weight of a sentence, and in turn begin building up a page with paragraphs of invention.” Elsewhere, Kif says of Heidl,  "He seemed to be trying to climb onto words, as if he were a drowning man and words bobbing jetsam that might save him, yet with each word grabbed he only succeeded in sinking further into a deep ocean of meaninglessness."

There are many pleasures in this book ---- wordplay, allusions, and vicious portraits of, for instance, Kif’s publisher (whose editor says about one successful author, “If he did anal imprints, we’d whack them in clapboards and set to work flogging them as a book.”). But what makes this impressive “memoir” most absorbing is Flanagan’s ability to turn Kif’s unsettling life experience into an allegory for the creative process. Perhaps the ultimate irony is that Kif turns out to be successful --- though not, of course, in the way he once would have imagined. As for happiness? Well, that depends on how one defines success.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on April 20, 2018

First Person
by Richard Flanagan

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 0525520023
  • ISBN-13: 9780525520023