- By Richard Flanagan
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- May 18, 2019
While ghostwriting the memoir of a notorious criminal, an aspiring novelist battles for his very soul.
Things get pretty meta in Richard Flanagan’s novel First Person, about an aspiring novelist who is hired to ghostwrite the memoirs of Australia’s most notorious con-man, Siegfried Heidl.
The year is 1992, “[A] great global party had started, the Wall fell, History ended, and everything was beginning,” and Kif Kehlmann is desperate for money. His wife is expecting twins, and the novel he has been laboring over is still a work-in-progress.
He’s so broke that he must walk with a limp to make his torn pair of sneakers last longer. So, naturally, he accepts when Ray, his best friend and Siegfried Heidl’s bodyguard, suggests that he help his boss write a memoir.
The pay is attractive, and the deadline is only six weeks: The publisher wants the book on sale before Heidl stands trial for defrauding the country’s biggest banks of $700 million.
But Heidl is an uncooperative partner and, soon, Kif realizes that the memoir is just another one of his cons. He doesn’t actually want the memoir finished, he just wants the advance. While Kif tries to wheedle pertinent information from Heidl, Heidl disappears for long “business” meetings, popping into the office to obfuscate and lie for a few hours before leaving again.
Meanwhile, Kif is undergoing something of an identity crisis that will be painfully familiar to anyone who has tried to write a book. Even as he’s writing, he “faced the inconvenient dilemma of not knowing how to write a novel, and the growing unspoken terror that perhaps I couldn’t… My writing was only words. There was no story. There was no soul. And whatever gave a novel its soul was a mystery to me.”
His marriage is also falling apart as he drifts away from his wife and the life of plodding penury she represents.
Kif’s crisis is reflected in publishing’s crisis. Though this is “before Amazon and e-books; before phrases like granular analytics, customer fulfillment, and supply chain alignment had connected like tightening coils in a hangman’s noose; before the relentless rise of property values and the collapse of publishing saw publishers’ offices morph into abattoir-like assembly lines,” it’s all coming, and Gene Paley, the memoir’s publisher, is its messenger. He is “frightened of literature,” more of an accountant than an editor, with an “almost shamanic feeling for money.”
Flanagan skewers other aspects of the literary world, as well. There’s the bestselling author who decides to write a cookbook, stealing his chef’s recipes and branding them as his own; the somewhat defensive insistence by the local literati on an Australian tradition of literature; and the darling of America’s literary scene who loathes novels and only writes autobiographical works whose “purpose was uplift, answers, certainty, knowledge, characters whose origins and psyche were all reducible to neat explanation and final judgment.”
Heidl frequently quotes his favorite philosopher, Tomas Tebbe, whose Nietzschean aphorisms include “A life isn’t an onion to be peeled, a palimpsest to be scraped back to some original, truer meaning. It’s an invention that never ends,” and, “The vaguer the message, the greater the prophet.”
When I consulted the internet to see if Tebbe actually existed, Google asked if I meant Thomas Tebbe, who just happens to be editorial director of fiction at Piper Verlag, publisher of authors like Jodi Picoult and Lionel Shriver. Just as with the similarity of Siegfried Heidl’s name to the Nazi salute, it’s safe to assume this is not a coincidence.
The publishing world is but a microcosm of the business world, where greed, hypocrisy, and an utter lack of moral values are seen as laudable virtues, an attitude that is slowly and inexorably adopted by the general public.
Heidl is a harbinger of the wave of unscrupulous businessmen who use the trappings of success to ruthlessly plunder profits for their own self-enrichment: think Bernie Madoff, Jordan Belfort, or the big, orange elephant in the novel, Donald J. Trump.
Gradually, Kif’s identity is subsumed by Heidl’s, the first person merging in the narrative as well as in real life. He no longer believes in his dream of becoming a writer, and something must fill the void. Everywhere he looks, he finds confirmation of Heidl’s nihilistic amorality and sees how the wicked always seem to win.
As might be expected from a prize-winning novelist (the 2014 Man Booker for The Narrow Road to the Deep North), Flanagan writes brilliantly about writing: the obsession over word count, the hot-and-cold alternating convictions that your work is brilliant and that it’s atrocious, the writing process itself, the mysterious impulse to write, and what exactly it means to call yourself a writer.
Kif does eventually finish his novel, but by then it’s too late. He has succumbed to Heidl’s beliefs, his Faustian bargain is complete. His novel never gets published, and he goes into reality TV, his specialty “bulimia races, real-life cancer competitions” and a show that pairs people who wish to die with those who wish to help them die. Great material success ensues.
Flanagan’s prose is sharp, aphoristic, and clever. Almost too clever. His observations are so on-point that he makes them again and again, the same observation cloaked in a different collection of astute words. All very fun to read, but after a while, it gets to be a glut of shrewd observation, a cyclical self-indulgence employed to hammer the message home.
But maybe that, too, is a wry comment on the state of literature, and the world, today. That’s just how meta this book is.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
Alice Stephens’ debut novel, Famous Adopted People, was published by Unnamed Press in October 2018.