Richard Flana­gan’s First Per­son

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson on Richard Flana­gan’s First Per­son

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

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.

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