Richard Flanagan’s First Person
Geordie Williamson on Richard Flanagan’s First Person
No one has written better than Henry James about the vocation of writing, its isolate ecstasies and public humiliations, and the implacable demands it places upon those who devote their lives to its practice. Take the 1888 novella The Lesson of the Master, in which a tyro scribe enters the circle of Henry St George, a literary eminence now past his prime. In a series of conversations, the senior writer tutors the junior in the inescapable trade-off literature will require of him. It seems he must choose between the lonely perfection of art and the disabling entanglements of marriage and children. Ordinary life will ensure “a loaf on the shelf”, but it will render impossible the achievement of what St George calls “the great thing”:
The sense of having done the best – the sense which is the real life of the artist and the absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played. He either does that or he doesn’t – and if he doesn’t he isn’t worth speaking of.
Similarly, no one in contemporary Australian literature has enunciated so clearly and with such vehemence the desire to become a writer in this pure, Jamesian sense as Richard Flanagan. It is not that he is the only local author of talent who regards the novel and fiction generally as the real, distinguished end to which an author might aspire; there are many who care as much and think in similar terms. What’s different with Flanagan is the unlikeliness of his calling: he, a working-class boy, many of whose forbears were illiterate, hailing from a benighted, convict-founded island as far from the capitals of culture and publishing as a human being is likely to get.
Flanagan’s follow-up to 2013’s Booker Prize–winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North takes as its subject the struggle of a young writer to choose between art and life. This time, however, the trade-off is warped by the power of the market – the decision is now between ordinary decency and the thrall of neoliberalism. First Person (Knopf Australia; $39.99) takes place in 1992 and is very much a story shaped by the decade just past, the period in which Hawke and Keating, Alan Bond and Christopher Skase presided over a radical revision of national priorities. It was a time when greed became its own vigorous, self-justifying good, floating free from old systems of morality, hierarchies of value or cultural mores. As Flanagan drolly puts it, “Something went wrong with the word mate in the 1980s, as with so many other things.”
The new novel is based, at least initially, on an experience from Flanagan’s early life, when the wannabe author took on a job ghostwriting the memoir of John Friedrich as a means of underwriting the novel that would become his first, Death of a River Guide. Friedrich was the former head of a high-profile search-and-rescue organisation called the National Safety Council of Australia, from which he stole almost $300 million, making him the country’s most notorious con man. The memoir was a triumph of stamina rather than style: written in six weeks and interrupted halfway through by Friedrich’s suicide. The whole sad and farcical enterprise served as a charismatic origin story for Flanagan. The writer’s fee, ill-gotten as it may have been, allowed him to complete one of the most consequential debuts of recent decades. It was a happy ending, then, wrenched from one man’s bathetic fall: a case of publishing dross spun into literary gold.
This is where First Person departs from the real. The experience of a young Tasmanian author named Kif Kehlmann seems a clear enough echo: stalled on his first novel and running out of cash, Kehlmann is offered an ambiguous lifeline – to ghost the memoir of a fraudster named Ziggy Heidl (like Friedrich a German national who has reinvented himself in Australia, bilking the organisation he runs for hundreds of millions). And yet the current of destiny is reversed in these pages. A much older, jaded Kehlmann narrates events in the near-present day. He never became a writer. Instead he turned to television and the emerging phenomenon of reality TV. He became rich by ghostwriting vacuous lives for a hungry audience. So First Person is an exercise in alternative history. It is the story of a writer who was corrupted and co-opted by his first experience of publishing, and led away from art.
That said, when we first meet Kehlmann he is a character evidently animated by the same impulses and circumstances as his creator. A young man of talent from the Tasmanian backblocks, married to a young woman currently heavy with
twins, desperate to become a writer but tied by domestic necessity to his home state and the small-bore jobs that provide him and his family with a bare subsistence. He is callow enough to be wary of the offer of the ghostwriting job – he fears it will sully his as yet non-existent literary reputation – but desperate enough for the $10,000 payment to accept it.
The reader follows Kehlmann and his single pair of ruined sneakers to Port Melbourne and the dreary offices of a multinational publisher’s Australian office. It is a kind of interzone, or Dantean purgatory – a corporate non-space, topographically monotonous, architecturally drab, denuded of nature – utterly at variance to the island state where Kehlmann was born and raised. Removed from his native landscape, away from his pregnant wife and his daughter, cowed by the class-ridden certitude of the publisher driving the project, Kehlmann is unmoored and ripe for conversion. Which is where Ziggy Heidl comes in.
Heidl and Kehlmann share an office in the publisher’s building. The plan is for the pair to use the few weeks remaining to Heidl ahead of his fraud trial to complete his life story. The reality is that Heidl is incorrigibly cagey; he cannot, or will not, reveal anything of himself that will be of use to the young ghostwriter. As they dance around each other, Kehlmann realises the gravity of his situation. Without Heidl’s assistance, there is no memoir; without the memoir, no payment. He will have abased himself and abandoned his family for nothing.
Kehlmann redoubles his efforts but rubs up against a technical problem without a solution: Heidl, strictly and metaphorically speaking, does not exist. He has taken on a new identity at several points in his past – his current self is one more pragmatic accommodation to the world’s need for names and bureaucratic designations. The man is a ring of asteroids circling an absent planet. He’s the sound of the ocean in a cupped seashell. He is postmodernity, with its arbitrary floating signifiers, robed in a skin-suit. Most disquieting of all, Kehlmann reluctantly concedes, is the sense that Heidl’s lack of substance is what makes him so superbly attuned to the emerging neoliberal moment. He is but one more narrative among competing narratives, as Heidl himself blusteringly explains: “Religion, science, money – they’re all just stories. Australia is a story, politics is a story, money is a story and the ASO [Australian Safety Organisation, which Heidl ran] was a story. The banks just stopped believing in my story. And when belief dies, nothing is left.”
For Kif Kehlmann, it is the story of writing – of being a writer of the kind who traffics in what William Faulkner called “the old verities and truths of the heart” – that breaks under pressure. Where for Faulkner (a touchstone author for Flanagan) it is the writer’s duty to “help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past”, for Kehlmann his obligation is to annotate the fantasies of a scoundrel. At night, lodging with a family friend who has failed to break through as a poet, the author feels his faith leaking away: “As I lay in the darkness I saw Sully as the future I didn’t want, the ghost of creativity spurned. Sully’s world had proven finally an illusion. Heidl’s world seemed the only real world. God didn’t dance after all. The interesting people were all in hell.”
The paradox of this loss of faith lies in what Kehlmann manages to salvage from the project’s wreckage: a kind of reverse vampirism – “for what was ghost writing but robbing from the life of someone else and calling it a book”. As the clock runs down on the memoir, the ghostwriter begins to gain substance by drawing on those oblique qualities Heidl still has to give:
But now I can see that all the time I thought I was simply mimicking a tone, catching a rhythm, something more was being etched into me. For I was learning from him the power of suggestion
rather than of demonstration; of evasion rather than enlightenment; of giving only one fact – or really, just the rumour of a fact – and then letting the reader invent everything else around it.
The real as opposed to the ostensible tragedy of First Person is that Kehlmann draws the correct conclusions from Heidl’s example, yet employs them towards self-defeating ends:
The more I invented Heidl on the page, the more the page became Heidl and the more Heidl me – and me the page and the book me and me Heidl. For the first time in my life I sensed the terrifying unity I had always craved as a writer but had never known.
In Henry James’ novella, the conclusion is comically wry. Having taken St George’s advice and travelled to consider his next steps, the young writer, Paul Overt, returns to England to discover that the older author, whose wife had died in the interim, is engaged to a much younger woman – coincidentally Paul’s potential bride. The younger writer reasonably complains to his elder that this move has end-stopped any chance of the domestic felicity he may have been considering. St George counters by explaining that he has freed Paul to become the true, dedicated artist he always wanted to be. St George had taken the bullet of happy mediocrity for his pupil.
Heidl’s lesson to his apprentice is different. The endgame that neoliberalism offers brooks no happiness, nor achievement beyond the accumulation of wealth. Kif Kehlmann gives up on art, and that is one betrayal – but he is also obliged to cut loose from the family whose love and care sustained him during these apprentice years. Classical liberalism was the thought-child of the Enlightenment. It was designed to levy upon the state a kind of human margin: a space in which the modern individual (the coherent being on which both democracy and the novel are premised) was able to emerge.
First Person sees neoliberalism, as embodied by Ziggy Heidl, as a philosophy that infects every aspect of our daily lives. It is a species of extremism. The obscure horror we feel trembling at the edge of Flanagan’s new novel is the sense that the way of life we have chosen as a society involves the subordination of every aspect of our lives to an ideology that is hostile to the old verities at the heart of the novel, at the heart of the human. Flanagan’s latest may seem a lighthearted subject after the horrors of war explored in Narrow Road. But it is not. It is a fiction even darker still.