Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the Man Booker 4 years ago. His new novel, First Person, which I think is even better, certainly deserves to be in contention for this year’s Man Booker. The Three Guys’ interview with Mr. Flanagan, on The Narrow Road, can be viewed here.
First Person views Australia from the point of view of Flanagan’s native Tasmania and views the world from the point of view of Australia, and as the novel extends its scope, takes in a global view. Although he has not felt like an “Australian writer”, based on his own statement in the interview linked to above, he has written a great Australian novel in First Person, a country on which he does not go easy. Richard Flanagan makes me feel guilty that I like to relax with Australian television on streaming services.
Hyperbole is an infection that gets into the blood and once it infests there, is very difficult to remove. You can contract hyperbole in many ways, such as by watching daytime TV or by reading Facebook posts, but I probably contracted it by success in receiving complimentary e-galleys, and I received one, very gratefully, for this book. But I am aware of my obligation not to overpraise, even if the publisher wouldn’t mind.
It’s 1992 and Kif is an aspiring novelist who has never written one, but at 30-something, is waiting his main chance to be in the right circumstances and the right state of mind at the right time to write one. Meanwhile he is going broke and near submerging his wife Suzy and daughter Bo, plus the twins that they are due to have, in a state so impecunious as to make poverty seem like a step up.
Then Kif gets his main chance to make 10K by writing, that is, by ghost writing a memoir of a newsworthy con man who is on the verge of going to jail for a long time. The con is Siegfried Heidel, whose name sounds like an obvious riff on the notable phrase “Sieg Heil!”.
Kif gets this opportunity because he was drinking, whoring, brawling buds with Siegfried’s, or Ziggy’s as he’s called, man-assistant Ray back in Tasmania when Kif and Ray were young and brawny. I want to be emphatic about the phrase “Ziggy’s man Ray” because Siegfried Heidel owns Ray, he owns what Ray does and is.
Ray warns his friend Kif, who is about to start his close working relationship with Ziggy while they compile the “true story” of Ziggy’s life, that the con man will worm his way into Kif’s soul, will make Kif into a minion version of Siegfried Heidel . That’s what Siegfried Heidel, who quotes Nietzsche at lot, and an obscure to the point of nonexistence “installationist” named Tebbe a lot, does.
“Here we go” I thought in an opening scene where Kif walks into the office of publisher Gene Paley, a man whose first name, when pronounced, can apply equally to a man or a woman. Gene is poring over complicated rhythms of numbers on reams of printouts. You get the impression that’s what a publisher mainly does, make the numbers work. It’s a portent of the new century that’s coming when literature, if there still is such a thing, and everything else, will be defined by its all-encompassing relationship to money.
Gene pulls a remarkable gesture by changing his shirt in front of Kif. It’s a power move because Gene is the boss and can do what he wants, even change his clothes in front of an underling.
Kif is struck by Gene’s mediocre body, it looks like an elongated puffy stem of a torso. It’s not the body of a “real man”. But Gene doesn’t care, he’s not embarrassed and Kif feels alienation settling over him like slime because Gene is not body-shamed when Kif feels that he should be.
Kif is given a large executive office to work with Siegfried on his memoir. Kif’s cover story is that he is working on an anthology of Westphalian poetry. Siegfried is the media sensation of the moment since he has swindled banks out of 700 million dollars by taking over a minor charitable organization that provides emergency help to distressed areas and turning it into an Enron-like corporation, based on phony assets and non-existent revenues. The vengeful banks are out to destroy Siegfried Heidel, lock him up forever. His dollar-counting publisher wants the tell-all memoir before that happens. The trial set to begin in a mere few weeks and the pressure on to complete the memoir.
Kif is desperate for the 10K he will receive as ghostwriter, but Ziggy won’t co-operate. He stalls, makes long phone calls, excuses himself to attend vital meetings that probably don’t exist, and when he tells Kif anything, contradicts himself, like a politician, from day to day.
Kif slowly realizes Ziggy doesn’t have a concept of truth built into him. There is nothing but the con. And Kif will have no memoir ready for Gene Paley unless he writes it himself, turning himself into a version of Ziggy, another con man. Oprah’s old book club audience, that needed to believe that memoirs were actually “true”, were really “inspirational”, meets its nemesis in Ziggy, who’s “faith” is that nothing is true, but that people’s need to believe, to trust, gives him a power to subvert anything they think they stand for.
When Ziggy calls Kif “his friend” it makes the reader’s flesh crawl. It’s finding yourself friends with Iago. Ziggy’s stature seems to expand or contract like an accordion. At times he seems enormous, like the devil’s first-born son, at other times he’s a small trivial man with no ideas and you wonder how his power over people, which seems so awesome, could reside in a soul that seems so petty and banal.
First Person is an interesting title. The novel is in first person, of course, and I wonder if that title means that the first person referred to, aside from being the character Kif, is also the author.
The novel feels like more of an integrated whole than Narrow Road to the Deep North was, and it feels more personal.
If you ever thought that Tasmania and the Australian continent were beautiful, then this book will convince you of that fact all over again. There is such a respectful awe of nature in its pages that makes me grateful, or hopeful anyway, that mankind’s depravity doesn’t have the power to mar it. If the cosmos is indifferent to us maybe that’s a good thing since it means that we can’t fundamentally harm it.
There is also a respectful fear of death, a healthy appreciation of its terror. Kif is horrified at the thought of his ending, of becoming the nothing that seems to surround him around the edges on all sides.
The reader is appalled by the mindless cruelty to helpless animals that is depicted in these pages. There are good people in the novel, but they seem like an aberration, the exceptional cases and they certainly aren’t in charge of the world, the bastards are. It makes you feel that our newer century is lurching towards a final spiritual crisis that it certainly deserves.
Flanagan makes a nice compliment to my town, calling New York the last European city. I recognize that for some Americans, calling something European counts as an insult. But since being a “rootless cosmopolitan” is my idea of heaven, I’m not one of those people. The offices of Penguin Random House in NY make their appearance towards the conclusion of the novel in a gracious gesture towards Richard Flanagan’s publisher. I’ve been in those offices, and there is no doubt in that space that publishing is a cultural enterprise as well as a business. You can smell civilization in the air in any publishing house that deserves the name. It gives you hope that the Ziggy’s of the world won’t be our rulers after all.
Calling to mind my hyperbole infection, if the novel has a weakness, maybe it would be that it attempts to take on too much. First Person is written from the gut as well as from a disciplined intellect. It’s a true “writer’s novel” with more intelligent stuff to say about what being a creative writer is really like than a shelf full of How to Be a Writer books. Flanagan really rocked when he wrote this one. First Person contains more perfect sentences than any book I’ve read since last year’s Man Booker winner by George Saunders. But it’s not for me to say if First Person is too ambitious and has therefore failed. Later decades of readers will decide that question. If the book still speaks to them, then it’s great.
Siegfried Heidel. That’s a sentence.