Book Review: First Person by Richard Flanagan

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I keep getting sucked into reading these books of Australian “literature”. Yes, okay, it’s my own doing and I do it in the hopes that one writer will redeem the rest of his or her colleagues. I’m still waiting for redemption.

Kif Kehlmann is an aspiring writer from Tasmania. Married with a young daughter and twins on the way, he’s plugging away at his first novel but he’s lucky to write a few hundred words a day and that’s mostly because he’s not very good and knows it, even if he refuses to admit it. To pay the bills, he works odd jobs for the local council and as a labourer. It’s the early 90s and mortgage rates are skyrocketing; he doesn’t know how he’s going to make the required repayments, especially once he gets fired from his council gig.

Then late one night, he gets a call from an old friend. Ray works as a bodyguard and general dogsbody for Siegfried Heidl, a conman who’s been arrested for a $700 million bank fraud. The money has disappeared, never to be repaid, and Heidl has six weeks before he’s going to jail. He wants to write his memoirs in the meantime and he needs a ghost writer.

Kif pretends to have a conscience for about fifteen minutes but is seduced by the $10,000 on offer. Except it could be more trouble than it’s worth. Heidl refuses to tell Kif anything about his life, merely talking in circles about nonsensical things, then creepily pries into Kif’s life. Ray has warned Kif not to tell Heidl anything personal, not to let him into his head. But Heidl is a psychopath and a sociopath and possibly a murderer and it’s harder than it sounds, especially for someone as weak and useless as Kif. There’s no way this is going to end well.

To be fair, it starts well. First Person has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. “Our first battle was birth.” Great, great, great opening line. And there are other moments of quotability. But they are few and far between. And towards the end, this line pops up: “Though I had nothing to say, I had read enough Australian literature to know this wasn’t necessarily an impediment to authorship.” Oh, boy, he isn’t kidding!

Even though it’s billed as a novel, the book is obviously autobiographical – when writers write main characters who are writers, they almost always are. The real story, which I looked up afterwards, is that Flanagan was contracted to ghost write the memoir of John Friedrich, known as Australia’s greatest conman, while he prepared to appear in court charged with a $300 million fraud. Basically, Flanagan doubles the money stolen, changes the names of everybody who appears in the book as well as the gender of his unborn twins from girls in real life to boys in the novel and tacks on an ending that we can all see coming.

Heidl comes across a lot like Donald Trump, selling the unsellable with a confusing word salad and managing to suck people in despite the fact that his only interest is in himself. In fact, none of the characters in the book are even remotely likeable, not even Kif, in fact especially not Kif, and as far as a complex female character, just forget it.

First Person is self-indulgent, overblown, overly long, mostly unintelligible and an excuse for Flanagan to tell us everything he thinks is wrong with publishing (which is pretty ironic since, with this effort, he is part of the problem). It’s a damn shame because the true story of Richard Flanagan’s interactions with John Friedrich would have been much more interesting and, I suspect, honest for both the writer and the reader.

On the plus side, the cover design is beautiful. That and the terrific opening sentence are about the only positive things I can find to say. I didn’t enjoy Flanagan’s writing style, there was little to no plot and the characters engendered little interest or affection.

About one-third of the way through reading this book, I accidentally dropped it open to the last chapter and couldn’t avoid seeing the words at the top of the page announcing simply that a character had died. Oh, no! I thought. I’ve ruined the ending for myself. But I hadn’t. Because it was inconsequential. As so much in the book was. Nothing in it will stay with me. Except for the sense of a wasted opportunity.

2 stars

*First published on Goodreads 2 February 2020

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