First Person by Richard Flanagan
London: Chatto & Windus, 2017 ISBN 9781784742195
One of my failings, as an Australian interested in literature, is that I have read very little modern Australian fiction. It seems to be something I avoid for some reason: many such reasons have flown through my mind, but this is not the place to go into them. My father, not one for modern fiction of any sort - or much else modern for that matter - read Flanagan's Death of a Riverguide and found it very enjoyable, so as an author he had been on my radar for some time. I didn't expect First Person to be my first Flanagan book, but circumstances have made it so.
It's certainly a very readable tome; I knocked off it's nearly four hundred pages in two days. Is it a good book? In parts yes, and certainly a fascinating one. Whilst fiction, it has at its kernel a basis in fact: Flanagan in his early writing years ghost-wrote the memoirs of John Friedrich, the con-man who defrauded the banks of millions of dollars with his National Safety Council. First Person is the story of Kif, who is hired to ghost-write the memoirs of Siegfried Heidl, the con-man who defrauded the banks of millions of dollars with his Australian Safety Organisation.
First Person is a book that deals with identity, truth, and evil. It is a portrayal of how con-men can manipulate their dupes, and of how a couple can fall apart, almost without knowing why. There is much good writing in this book. There is also quite a bit of posturing and moralizing placed in the mouths of the characters that rings of authorial viewpoint rather than character development.
Flanagan is at his best when describing Kif's struggles in getting the truth out of Heidl, of Kif's worries about money and in the trauma of the birth of twins. When he writes of the corporate world, of the commodification of life, and the greed and the stupidity of banks, his prose seems more formulaic and less original.
In Heidl though, Flanagan has created something: a character whose entire life is a lie but whose lies seem to engender a truth that others want to believe, and who seems to invade and take over each person he comes in contact with.
Kif is warned by Ray - his childhood friend, bodyguard to Heidl and the person who recommended Kif for the ghost-writing job - not to believe Heidl or let him into his own world. The interaction between Kif and Heidl centres mostly around the idea of truth, with Kif trying to pin Heidl down, and Heidl using Kif's suppositions to constantly make and remake a new story of himself. At times Kif is sure that Heidl is a complete fraud, only to have events suggest otherwise. Eventually Kif becomes lost in the story.
The latter part of the book shows how the legacy of Heidl lives on in Kif. Having left his partner Suzy, and serious writing to become a producer of reality TV shows, Kif in some ways has become Heidl, selling something fake to the gullible many, and not caring who gets hurt, all the while not knowing who he is, and believing the worst of the World. The final chapter of the book reveals something about Kif that confirms the worst, and shows the reader that Kif, like Heidl, is not above making up his own story.
In many ways this is a book with a depressing message: that most people are dupes or fools, and that life is a long torment of unrealised hopes for those who stick to the strait and narrow. Kif starts out on the strait and narrow, then meets Heidl, and his path takes a different turn, to riches without fulfilment. Flanagan does though show us in Suzy that there is another way, a way in which understanding, empathy and being happy with what you have can lead to fulfilment.
At the end, this is a fascinating book about the process of writing, and about human nature. It is also in some ways an old-fashioned monster story. Although slightly let down in parts by too much moralizing, it is still well worth reading.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell