An obsession with truth, fiction and nature of lies
Fiction: First Person, Richard Flanagan, Chatto & Windus, paperback, 392 pages, €17.50
As a writer, Richard Flanagan follows his own rules. His 2001 novel, Gould's Book of Fish - a postmodern trip through the colonial and penal history of his native Tasmania - is as challenging as it is wildly inventive. His last novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, won the 2014 Man Booker Prize, and is more accessible but equally ambitious, centring on the construction of the Death Railway between Thailand and Burma during World War II. Devastating and beautifully layered, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is concerned with questions of good and evil, a theme that resurfaces in Flanagan's new book.
First Person is a mock memoir, a story told in retrospect that only makes sense in retrospect. The narrator, Kif Kehlmann, focuses mainly on a period in 1992, when he's offered $10,000 to ghostwrite the memoir of a corporate criminal who is about to be sentenced for swindling several Australian banks out of $700m. Kif aspires to be a great literary novelist. The offer is "tormenting". To accept would be to abandon "some sacred trust for a Faustian deal involving money". But his wife is expecting twins and the impoverished couple already have one child. He agrees to be the "ghost" and leaves Tasmania for the publishing house in Melbourne where he has six weeks to get the book done.
It's a hellish project. Dangerously manipulative and strangely knowing, his subject, Ziggy Heidl, is beyond elusive, sabotaging interviews and abandoning meetings. Kif, who fears that they are coming to resemble each other "as the coloniser does the colonised" begins to fictionalise Heidl on the page in order to meet his deadline.
Other characters circle the story: Ray, Kif's childhood friend and Heidl's fixer - the one who got Kif the gig in the first place. Gene Paley, the publisher obsessed with figures and rumoured to be frightened of literature. "If you can only learn to write badly enough," he advises Kif, "you can make a great deal of money."
First Person is partly a comment on the corporatisation of publishing but Flanagan's main obsession is with truth, fiction and the nature of lies.
The story has had over two decades to ferment. When he was an aspiring novelist - his wife pregnant with twins - Flanagan ghostwrote the memoir of John Friedrich, one of Australia's most infamous conmen and corporate criminals.
The biographical root of the book is both relevant and utterly irrelevant. A stubborn novel in many ways, First Person is also a stubbornly postmodern book, a novel about itself and a critique of the current publishing trend towards memoir, autofiction and creative non- fiction. At one late point, Flanagan has a go at Karl Ove Knausgård, Rachel Cusk and other writers who have become well known for their autobiographical work. Kif - now middle-aged - meets a young, obnoxious American writer; the third volume of her memoirs is on the New York Times bestseller list.
"I hate stories," she says. "We all hate them. We've heard them all before. We need to see ourselves."
"It sounds like literary selfies," Kif says.
Flanagan does not hate stories, quite the opposite, but this story suffers immeasurably from his endless examination of what a story is. There are occasional stunning scenes - two of which revolve around dying animals - and glimpses of how funny and brilliantly descriptive Kif could be if he would only shift his focus. In dwelling on the constructs of the story - Heidl being Kif's subject, Kif being his own subject as well as Flanagan's subject - Flanagan withholds the actual story, allowing his narrator to return to the same preoccupations again and again. Too many pages are given over to the tedious cat-and-mouse games between Kif and Heidl, and to Kif's tortured assertions that he merged with his nemesis. Truth becomes fiction and fiction becomes truth and it's unclear what it all means until close to the end, when Kif begins to retell the "real" story of what happened.
In the last 50 pages or so, Flanagan shows us the story he could have told and the way in which he could have told it. At this point Kif stops positioning himself in relation to Heidl (a frustratingly bloodless character) and reveals a depth and humanity missing for the bulk of his 'memoir'. He makes two significant disclosures, which partly explain why he has been so dully single-minded, so straitened, until this. He stops withholding but it's too late.
First Person might be extremely clever but its distortions and endless self- referentiality are irredeemably alienating. At one point Ray describes Heidl as a "bloody funhouse mirror". He could be talking about the novel he's in. By playing endless Heidlesque mind games, Flanagan risks his readers - and the risk doesn't pay off.