First Person is a first person narrative set in the early 1990s in the depths of the ‘recession we had to have’. Kif Kehlmann, an aspiring writer, is struggling both financially and artistically. He lives in a rundown house in Hobart with his wife Suzy who is expecting twins, and their three year old daughter. They are barely able to meet their mortgage payments and Kif is going nowhere with his novel. After losing his part-time job, he is unexpectedly offered $10,000 to ghost write the memoir of Siegfried Heidl, a conman and corporate crook about to stand trial for defrauding the banks of millions. Kif is given a deadline of six weeks by the publisher to achieve this. Heidl himself is by turns charming and deceitful, manipulative and evasive, unwilling to confirm the most basic facts of his life, often answering Kif’s questions with trite and sometimes impenetrable aphorisms. Heidl often absents himself from the office so Kif is left struggling even to produce a coherent outline of the memoir for the publisher. He is also worried by the fact that, despite his attempts to keep his life private, Heidl knows far more of his life and his family than Kif is comfortable with. As the weeks pass Kif grapples with ideas of invention, of obfuscation and of the nature of truth and fiction. Heidl is clearly unreliable but we come to question Kif’s own reliability as he is drawn under Heidl’s influence.
The story is based on Flanagan’s own experiences as a young writer in the early 1990s when he was offered $10,000 to write the autobiography of one of Australia’s most notorious conmen, John Friedrich in six weeks. Flanagan’s own life, at that point, was as desperate as Kif’s.
This is a very literary novel. There are powerful moments of sheer brilliance such as the birth of Kif and Suzy’s twins yet at other times the pace is so slow that it feels more like a meditation than a narrative. Near the end of the novel Kif says
‘Though I had nothing to say, I had read enough Australian literature to know this wasn’t necessarily an impediment to authorship.’ (p.314).
This had me wondering whether First Person is, in fact, an elaborate joke at the expense of an avid literary public. The Goodreads reviews give a good sense of the depths more literary readers found in the novel.
For anyone who has not read anything by Richard Flanagan before, I would recommend starting with something like his 2014 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North which I found harrowing, intensely moving and with a great depth of understanding of the human condition. First Person is a book for the literary Flanagan fan.