Kif Kehlmann, a young penniless writer, is rung in the middle of the night by the notorious con man and corporate criminal, Siegfried Heidl. About to go to trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million, Heidl offers Kehlmann the job of ghostwriting his memoir. He has six weeks to write the book, for which he'll be paid $10,000. But as the writing gets under way, Kehlmann begins to fear that he is being corrupted by Heidl. As the deadline draws closer, he becomes ever more unsure if he is ghostwriting a memoir, or if Heidl is rewriting him -- his life, his future. Everything that was certain grows uncertain as he begins to wonder -- who is Siegfried Heidl -- and who is Kif Kehlmann? As time runs out, one question looms above all others -- what is the truth?
If have read other books by Richard Flanagan which could really thrill me, unfortunately, “First Person” does not belong to those. It took almost a third of the book to really get into the novel. Admittedly, it is getting better and better in the course of the time, but I am sure many readers will never reach this point.
Flanagan presents two strong protagonists who are quite appealing and interesting. Kif with his dream of writing a novel sold thousands of times and at the same time struggling with his private life. His head is full with other things, diving into a task such as the ghostwriter’s job seems rather impossible at this moment of his life. And both, his life and the writing, turn out to be incompatible.
Siegfried on the other hand is fascinating because we can never really make up a picture of him. Is he a con man or is he actually super-clever? Which pieces of the story he tells are true (in as much as fiction can be true), which are just narrative? Or as Kif puts it:
“For Heidl wasn’t so much a self-made man as a man ceaselessly self-making.” (pos. 3055)
It is his strange charisma that makes him enthralling and captivating. Kif, too, in his description is oscillating between adoration and disdain:
“I couldn’t decide whether I hated Heidl or admired him, if I was his friend or his enemy, if I wanted to save him or kill him.” (pos. 2877) and yet, “He was the closest thing to a man of genius I ever met.” (Po. 3747)
The dance they do is shows that Flanagan is one of the best writers of our time, but nevertheless, this story just was not one that could capture me completely.
The revolution in technology did not wear an iconic hat that clearly and visibly marked what has surely been as earth-shattering to the evolution of human civilization as the move to food production some twelve thousand years ago, or the advent of the Industrial Revolution two and a half centuries ago. But in the relatively brief span that elapsed between the release of two flicks in the crime heist genre—Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and Martin McDonagh’s Baby Driver in 2017—the world has undergone a vast change that we perhaps have yet to fully comprehend. GPS, DNA, IPOD, CPU, IPHONE, DROID, WEBCAM, WINDOWS-10, MAC-AIR, GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, CCTV, STREAMING, DVR, DRONE—these are all shorthand that shout out not only what we have gained, but most notably what we have lost in an irrevocably altered universe that on its face looks otherwise so familiar to us. In the end, some things we may never have thought were at risk—things like privacy and anonymity—have forever vanished. It feels like we have lost something else, as well, something far more critical, but we have yet to find the words to fully articulate that loss.
The plot of Richard Flanagan’s First Person: A Novel is not specifically concerned with all of that, yet it is evident in the metaphorical subtextual underscore that is only subtly revealed in the nuanced quasi-epilogue that closes out this magnificent novel. Much of the narrative is set in the early 1990s, although there is clearly a look back from the present-day that is only made manifest at its end. This is fitting because First Person was published in 2017, and Flanagan’s own first novel, Death of a River Guide, in 1994. But there is much more to it than that.
Before he wrote fiction, Flanagan was just a young Tasmanian aspiring novelist retained for $10,000 on a punishing six-week schedule to ghostwrite the memoir of John Friedrich, an infamous con-man on trial for defrauding banks of hundreds of millions of dollars. Fredrich killed himself before the work was complete, but the finished work saw posthumous publication in 1991. The subtitle of First Person—"A Novel”—is perhaps a satirical clarification of what the author is up to. This is because Flanagan’s latest work is a fictional treatment (or is it?) of precisely this episode from his own life. In this version, the protagonist is Kif Kehlmann, a young Tasmanian aspiring novelist retained for $10,000 on a punishing six-week schedule to ghostwrite the memoir of Siegfried “Ziggy” Heidl, an infamous con-man convicted of defrauding banks of hundreds of millions of dollars. This proves a challenging yet miraculous potential windfall for the poverty-stricken Kif, a struggling would-be novelist attempting to make brittle ends meet, while balancing his roles as father to a young child and husband (in a passionate but volatile relationship) to a beautiful woman, heavily pregnant with twins. Ziggy is an artful manipulator, and soon gets inside Kif’s head, as the project turns to frustration, hopelessness and foreboding. Kif comes to question his own reality, an internal brand of the kind of “gaslighting” that often confronts us in today’s political post-truth universe. In the end, Kif has been not only scarred but permanently altered by the experience, his sense of identity somehow irretrievably lost, and lost along with that has been the very world he once inhabited.
Richard Flanagan remains one of my favorite living novelists. Like all great writers of fiction, he brings much greater themes to storylines that are themselves fascinating and compelling. His epic novel of prisoners of war set to slave labor on the Burma Railway, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2014. And I consider Gould’s Book of Fish—his 2001 tragicomic tale of a hapless prisoner of an earlier day, distinguished by the author’s own unique use of magical realism—one of the finest novels yet written in the millennium. Flanagan’s latest effort demonstrates that his skill as an artist of words only continues to flourish.
The best part of First Person is in looking back on it after closing the cover. The reader cannot help but wonder which chunks of the novel represent the fictional Kif Kehlmann, and which reflect the authentic Richard Flanagan? And where in the narrative does John Friedrich end and Ziggy Heidl begin? Or vice versa? Have all four men, real and fictional, somehow merged into a single figure that is at once an amalgam of the best and worst features of the four? Most disturbing perhaps, is the harbinger that is the second to last line of the novel: “It’s coming. It’s coming.” Of course, for the author and the rest of us, we certainly know that answer: it’s already here.