‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan


2017, 392 p.

Near the end of Richard Flanagan’s First Person, there’s an interaction between the narrator, the jaded reality-TV producer Kif Kehlmann and a late-twenties writer Emily Coppin in a New York restaurant. Kif asks her what she writes.  Autobiography, she answers:

It’s what everyone writes now. Knausgaard, Lerner, Cust, Carrère. All the best writers taking literature somewhere new…It’s fake inventing stories as if they explain things…Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again….Everyone wants to be the first person. Autobiography is all we have… (p. 361)

This book is a wry, knowing riff on the act of writing and the literary imagination. It is written in the form of a memoir penned by the writer Kif Kehlmann who was employed to ghost-write the memoir of a con-man Siegfried Heidl.  Heidl had somehow inveigled himself into directorship of a shadowy para-military outfit under an innocuous public safety name. He had defrauded the banks of $700 million, and he was evasive and slippery. He had received a hefty advance from his publishers to write a memoir, but he had no intention of doing so. Aspiring but unpublished writer Kif Kehlmann was tapped on the shoulder for the job, only because he was recommended by Heidl’s bodyguard, Ray who grew up with Kif in Tasmania. Offered $10,000 to pull together a ghost-written memoir, Kif is given six weeks – and then less- to get the book out before Heidl goes to trial. He does not like Heidl, who is erratic, manipulative and dangerous. Ray warns him not to let Heidl into his head, but Heidl manages to do so anyway. Kif, lured by the money, leaves his heavily-pregnant wife in Tasmania while he comes across to Melbourne where he tries to pin Heidl down.

If Siegfried Heidl sounds familiar, it’s because he is. He is based on John Friedrich, who became the director of the National Safety Council of Australia (Victorian division) which collapsed with debts of a quarter of a billion dollars. He wrote, with Richard Flanagan (i.e. the author of this book) himself as ghost writer, Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich. And so, this book which appears to be a novel framed as a memoir, is probably more memoir than it appears, although it is not true.  As Richard Flanagan cheerfully admits in interviews, he was given a six week contract to ghost-write Friedrich’s memoir, leaving his pregnant wife back in Tasmania and he grappled with the erratic, manipulative and dangerous Friedrich.

Too tricksy? Possibly, although while you’re reading it, it all seems quite uncomplicated at first.  Kif’s voice is confessional and appealing enough, until he reveals himself as a bastard towards his wife.  The tension builds in the book as the six-week deadline approaches, and I found myself reading late into the night about 2/3 of the way through the book.  In many ways, I wish that the book had stopped at that point, because I found the denouement rather tedious – although Flanagan is such a clever writer than I’m not sure that this is exactly what he intended.

The real pleasure of this book was knowing its tortured relationship with ‘truth’, and I had a little chuckle out loud when Kif referred to his ultimately-rejected first novel about a drowning river guide, knowing full well that this is Death of a River Guide, Flanagan’s debut novel now viewed as a classic.  I wondered how a reader unfamiliar with Flanagan and his work would read this book.  For those of us who have followed Flanagan’s work, it’s a little nod and wink in our direction.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

My rating: 8.5/10 (it would have been higher if it hadn’t gone on for too long)

Find out more: There’s an excellent review by Roslyn Jolly at the Sydney Review of Books and of course, it’s worth listening to the wonderful Richard Fidler interviewing Flanagan on Conversations.

4 responses to “‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

  1. I have written a couple of adverse reviews of Flanagan and Lisa has banned me from writing any more. But I really like the premise of this book – and very much enjoyed your review of it. I might have to read it in secret. I really, really hope it’s as good as you say.

  2. I’ve tried two Flanagan novels, ‘The Unknown Terrorist’ (2006) and ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’ (2013). On both occasions I got bored soon after opening the front cover, and stopped reading.

  3. I don’t understand why people didn’t like this one, maybe for the reason you hint at, Flanagan’s sly wink to people who’ve read his books might baffle those who haven’t. Their loss, I say.

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