First Person (Knopf Publishing Penguin Random House 2017) by Richard Flanagan follows the publication of his Booker-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. This next book is contemporary and darkly funny, with esoteric overtones that imbue the tale with an impenetrable and mysterious tone. I’ve heard Richard Flanagan speak about the genesis of this book, which is loosely based on an experience he had has a young writer just starting out. The story he tells is ridiculously absurd and full of hilarious anecdotes on the theme of ‘you couldn’t make this stuff up’ and ‘if this was fiction, no-one would believe it’. But in First Person, and the creation of the characters Kif Kehlmann and Siegfried Heidl, Flanagan has reproduced the essence of that story, and captured the inanities both of the corporate world and the world of writing.
Siegfried Heidl is a notorious conman who has swindled Australian banks out of $700 million and masqueraded in a multitude of personas to amass a personal fortune and an impressive reputation. But he has been found out, and is due to go to trial. In a last-ditch effort to save face, he hires penniless wannabe author, Kif Kehlmann, to ghost write his memoir, promising it will be a tell-all bestseller. Kif is attempting to work on his first novel, and trying to support his wife, who is heavily pregnant with twins, and his young daughter. The $10 000 offered by the publisher Gene Paley for Heidl’s memoir seems like a life-saving proposition to the young Tasmanian writer, even if it is has to be completed in the impossible time-frame of six weeks. But once he begins work – or at least, once he attempts to begin work, which is fraught, because Heidl seems intent on divulging as little of himself as possible – but once he meets with Heidl and begins, he starts to understand the enormity of the task he has agreed to undertake, and the unlikelihood that anything close to resembling a book will eventuate.
Kif is introduced to Heidl through an old friend, Ray, who is now working security for Heidl. Ray warns Kif from the very beginning not to get too involved with Heidl, not to tell him anything personal, not to let him get under his skin. But Heidl is a slippery and elusive character and Kif finds that he does indeed begin to make an impression, more like a covering of green slime that he desires to wash away at the end of each day. The personality of Heidl, and the relationship he cultivates with those around him, including Kif and Ray, is executed so well – we have the sinister overtones, the ever-present threat of violence, the constant ambiguity about whether to believe his lies or whether to call out his truths. The whole book is one big deception. We don’t know who to believe, or how much to believe. The characterisation of Heidl – and of Kif also – is nuanced and elaborate. In addition, the craft and business of writing is deconstructed, analysed and critiqued. The art of writing is debated, poked fun at, and parodied. We gain a keen sense of all the insecurities writers suffer, all the thwarted ambitions and the prideful notions. The writer’s lament: ‘Am I any good? Will I ever be published? Is my writing complete rubbish? Am I a pretender? Will I ever come up with anything original? Where is my muse? What if this is as good as it gets?’ is thoroughly dissected. So for writers, this book is very interesting for its take on writing, but also the in-depth characterisation of the main two characters, with all their foibles and flaws, is fascinating.