Joyce Carol Oates

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Joyce Carol Oates

First Per­son by Richard Flana­gan

First Per­son by Richard Flana­gan. Knopf, 351 pp., $26.95

“I have been miss­ing since I was born.” —First Per­son

As Isa­iah Ber­lin noted the dis­tinc­tion be­tween thinkers who know many things, like Archilochus’s fox, and thinkers who know one big thing, like Archilochus’s hedge­hog, so it’s help­ful to dis­tin­guish be­tween writ­ers who ex­plore myr­iad strate­gies of fic­tion, more re­sem­bling chameleons than foxes, and writ­ers who rarely ven­ture be­yond their early suc­cesses, re­fin­ing and re­fur­bish­ing fa­mil­iar, well-tra­versed bur­rows. Con­sider one of the great ex­per­i­men­tal writ­ers in English: Who could have pre­dicted on the ba­sis of James Joyce’s Dublin­ers that this qui­etly dev­as­tat­ing real­ist in the tra­di­tion of Chekhov and Tur­genev would next write A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man, an idio­syn­cratic rein­ven­tion of the bil­dungsro­man; then Ulysses, a yet more rad­i­cal rein­ven­tion of the novel as a mock odyssey thrum­ming with sights, sounds, smells, and em­a­na­tions of Dublin on June 16, 1904; then, yet more am­bi­tiously, the bound­lessly imag­i­na­tive, ob­ses­sively solip­sis­tic Fin­negans Wake? Each suc­ces­sive work of Joyce’s is a pro­found leap away from nine­teenth-cen­tury re­al­ism, with its em­pha­sis upon the metic­u­lously ob­served ex­te­rior world; though traces of Dublin­ers may be de­tected in Fin­negans Wake, Joyce’s fi­nal work of fic­tion dif­fers so ut­terly from his first as to sug­gest a to­tally dif­fer­ent aes­thetic, if not a dif­fer­ent con­scious­ness. By con­trast, most writ­ers cul­ti­vate a sig­na­ture prose style and an aes­thetic per­spec­tive that last them a life­time. Like fa­vorite hik­ing boots, these strate­gies are not will­fully sur­ren­dered once they are ac­quired and have proven durable: each Jane Austen novel re­sem­bles its pre­de­ces­sor just enough to make Austen a re­li­able brand, arous­ing in­tense loy­al­ties (and in­tense an­i­mosi­ties). Writ­ers as dis­parate in other re­spects as Ge­orge Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hem­ing­way, Flan­nery O’Con­nor, Eu­dora Welty, Saul Bel­low, Philip Roth, Don­ald Barthelme, John Updike—and many more—de­velop through their ca­reers in ways that de­pend less on for­mal rein­ven­tion from work to work than on a deep­en­ing of in­di­vid­ual vi­sion once a dis­tinc­tive style has been es­tab­lished.

Born in Tas­ma­nia in 1961, the de­scen­dent of Ir­ish con­victs trans­ported in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury to the is­land pe­nal colony Van Diemen’s Land (later known as Tas­ma­nia, a state of Aus­tralia), Richard Flana­gan is among the most ver­sa­tile writ­ers in the English lan­guage. That he is also an en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist and the au­thor of nu­mer­ous influential works of nonfiction makes his achieve­ment all the more re­mark­able. Each of Flana­gan’s seven nov­els is dis­tinct from the oth­ers, as if they are by dif­fer­ent writ­ers; each is a tour de force of its own kind, and sev­eral have been called “mas­ter­pieces” by re­view­ers—as if a gifted writer might be ex­pected to have a “mas­ter­piece” with each pub­li­ca­tion rather than once in a ca­reer.

Flana­gan’s first novel, Death of a River Guide (1994), plunges the reader into a daz­zling kalei­do­scope of lan­guage—im­pres­sion­is­tic, vi­sion­ary, “ar­che­typal,” per­sonal—as a river guide drowns af­ter his raft has over­turned on the tur­bu­lent Franklin River in Tas­ma­nia. Through the prism of this ex­pand­ing, con­tract­ing con­scious­ness Flana­gan yokes the pri­vate his­tory of one man to that of his fore­bears and to a mythic his­tory of Tas­ma­nia, its ori­gins as a pe­nal colony, and its set­tling by myr­iad na­tion­al­i­ties. Flana­gan’s sec­ond novel, The Sound of One Hand Clap­ping (1997), is an am­bi­tious chron­i­cle of Slove­nian im­mi­grants in Tas­ma­nia. Mem­o­ries of war, mi­gra­tion, and the set­tling of a new land are re­lated in a nar­ra­tive voice as de­tached at times as a fairy tale (“all of it took place long, long ago in a world that has since per­ished into peat, in a for­got­ten win­ter on an is­land of which few have ever heard”).

De­light­fully ec­cen­tric, a lin­guis­tic sleight-of-hand, Gould’s Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish (2001) is the an­tithe­sis of its somber pre­de­ces­sor. It is nar­rated in the grandil­o­quent voice of Wil­liam Buelow Gould, a nine­teen­thcen­tury con­vict im­pris­oned in the most no­to­ri­ous pe­nal colony in the Bri­tish Em­pire—Tas­ma­nia. Gould is a nat­u­ral­born artist; he is an in­spired, in­deed a manic talker, an ex­trav­a­gant, Joycean cre­ation who ref­er­ences Faulkner’s As I Lay Dy­ing in the epi­graph to his book­within-a-book, and an­nounces solemnly late in the nar­ra­tive: “My tragedy is that I be­came a fish.” Gould is a por­trait of the artist as a doomed, driven, yet ec­static fig­ure, a kind of shaman evok­ing the wild eigh­teenth-cen­tury en­er­gies of the early anti-novel, the drollery of Laurence Sterne con­joined with the sur­re­al­ism of more mod­ern times: I live now in per­fect soli­tude. We fish keep com­pany it is true, but our thoughts are our own & ut­terly in­com­mu­ni­ca­ble. Our thoughts deepen & we un­der­stand each other with a com­plete pro­fun­dity only those un­bur­dened by speech & its com­pli­ca­tions could un­der­stand. It is then un­true that we nei­ther think nor feel. In­deed, apart from eat­ing & swim­ming, it is all we have to oc­cupy our minds . . . . Some­times I must ad­mit I long once more to have the power of hu­man speech . . . so that I might ex­plain how I once wanted to live as a rain­bow of color ex­plod­ing, hard sun fall­ing apart in soft rain, but had to be con­tent in­stead with mak­ing grubby marks on cheap car­tridge pa­per.

An­ti­thet­i­cal to the ver­bal riches of Gould’s Book of Fish is Flana­gan’s fourth novel, The Un­known Ter­ror­ist (2006), a plot-driven polemic thriller set in the after­math of Septem­ber 11. It’s a time when para­noid sus­pi­cions of Is­lamic ter­ror­ists are cyn­i­cally ex­ploited by right-wing politi­cians and tabloid jour­nal­ists in Aus­tralia as in the United States, and in­no­cent in­di­vid­u­als like Flana­gan’s hap­less pro­tag­o­nist, a twenty-six-year-old pole dancer whose bad luck it is to have spent a night with a man later sus­pected of be­ing a ter­ror­ist, are per­se­cuted mer­ci­lessly. Set in a vividly ren­dered Syd­ney, cin­e­matic in its swift pace, The Un­known Ter­ror­ist reads at times like a screen­play to which di­gres­sive mus­ings have been at­tached some­what awk­wardly, as if to give bal­last to the melo­dra­matic plot:

Ni­et­zsche wrote, “I am not a man, I am dy­na­mite.” It was the im­age of a dreamer. Ev­ery day now some­body some­where is dy­na­mite. They are not an im­age. They are the walk­ing dead, and so are the peo­ple who are stand­ing around them. Re­al­ity was never made by re­al­ists, but by dream­ers like Je­sus and Ni­et­zsche.

Want­ing (2008) is an ebul­lient re­turn to a nine­teenth-cen­tury mi­lieu, “a med­i­ta­tion on de­sire—the cost of its de­nial, the cen­tral­ity and force of its power in hu­man af­fairs,” as Flana­gan said in his af­ter­word. It’s a pow­er­ful in­dict­ment of Bri­tish colo­nial­ism in Aus­tralia that takes as its sub­ject the short, tragic life of a real-life Abo­rig­i­nal or­phan named Mathinna who was adopted by the colo­nial gover­nor of Van Die­man’s Land, Sir John Franklin, and his wife, Jane, and later aban­doned to an or­phan­age. Richly imag­ined, rhetor­i­cally in­ven­tive in the man­ner of Gould’s Book of Fish, Want­ing in­ter­weaves the story of Mathinna with those of other his­tor­i­cal fig­ures of the time, in­clud­ing (mid­dle-aged) Charles Dick­ens and his (much younger) mis­tress Ellen Ter­nan and Dick­ens’s friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor Wilkie Collins.

Flana­gan’s best-known novel is the Booker Prize–win­ning The Nar­row Road to the Deep North (2013). In­spired by the or­deals Flana­gan’s fa­ther suf­fered as a Ja­panese pris­oner of war forced to work on the Thai–Burma Rail­way dur­ing World War II, The Nar­row Road is what one might call an ex­em­plary “tra­di­tional” novel with clearly de­fined char­ac­ters (both Aus­tralian pris­on­ers and Ja­panese prison camp of­fi­cers) and a res­o­lutely low-key nar­ra­tive voice. If Gould is a sat­ur­na­lia of ec­static speech, the voice of Nar­row Road is plain, forth­right, re­por­to­rial— one thinks of Or­well’s in­junc­tion to write with the trans­parency of a pane of glass. The Ja­panese POW camp is a place of un­speak­able sadism and bru­tal­ity, and in try­ing to sum­mon his thoughts about it the sur­vivor Dor­rigo Evans pon­ders “why he could not write some­thing so ob­vi­ous and sim­ple”— the irony be­ing that Flana­gan is able to ac­com­plish just this. The novel looks back to Dor­rigo’s dis­ap­point­ment when he tried to read a ro­man­tic novel in the prison camp and dis­cov­ered that its last pages had been ripped out: “There was no hope or joy or un­der­stand­ing. There was no last page. The book of his life just broke off.”


The Nar­row Road to the Deep North was in­spired by his fa­ther’s ex­pe­ri­ence, so Flana­gan’s new, sev­enth novel, First Per­son, has been in­spired by his own ex­pe­ri­ence as a young hus­band and fa­ther. Des­per­ate for money, Flana­gan agreed to ghost­write the “au­to­bi­og­ra­phy” of a con man named John Friedrich for $10,000 dur­ing a hec­tic six-week pe­riod in 1991. Ger­man-born, an im­mi­grant to Aus­tralia, the canny, charis­matic Friedrich was charged with de­fraud­ing in­vestors and banks of many mil­lions of dol­lars in the 1980s. Mid­way through his col­lab­o­ra­tion with Flana­gan he com­mit­ted sui­cide, free­ing the young writer to com­plete the mem­oir, Co­de­name Iago: The Story of John Friedrich (1991), on his own terms.

That it was a trau­matic and hu­mil­i­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for Flana­gan is ev­i­dent

from the dis­jointed nar­ra­tive of First Per­son, which tracks a nearly iden­ti­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween a no­to­ri­ous (fic­ti­tious) Aus­tralian con man and a young writer who takes the job purely for money. The novel is, in ef­fect, a mono­logue by the young writer, a rem­i­nis­cence in­ter­rupted by nu­mer­ous starts, stops, di­gres­sions, and pas­sages of self-loathing and self-pity: “The only thing worse than writ­ing was not writ­ing . . . . The art, I read, was to find your cen­ter and write from that. It wasn’t that I wor­ried I couldn’t reach my cen­ter. It was that I feared I had. And there was noth­ing there.”

Flana­gan’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a ghost­writer would seem to have jaded his ide­al­ism about pub­lish­ing as well. His fi­nan­cially strapped al­ter ego Kif signs on with a Mel­bourne pub­lisher named Gene Pa­ley, who is said to be “fright­ened of lit­er­a­ture .... For one thing, it doesn’t sell. For an­other, it can fairly be said that it asks ques­tions it can’t an­swer . . . . It re­minds them that the busi­ness of life is fail­ure, and that the fail­ure to know this is true ig­no­rance.” Aus­tralian pub­lish­ing, per­haps all pub­lish­ing, has be­come crassly com­mer­cial; as Kif puts it, pub­lish­ers fa­vor “books on choco­late, gar­den­ing, fur­ni­ture, mil­i­tary his­tory, tired celebri­ties; te­dious mem­oirs and pulp nov­els . . . . The trade ex­plained all things.” Pa­ley en­cour­ages Kif: “If you can only learn to write badly enough you can make a great deal of money.” Later, Kif is in­tro­duced to a suc­cess­ful woman writer of mem­oirs with eyes “the dull color of old snail shells,” who mocks the very prin­ci­ple of lit­er­ary fic­tion:

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. I mean, isn’t that what you do in re­al­ity TV?

Though it is not likely that First Per­son will be called a mas­ter­piece, the novel is, in its way, a vir­tu­osic per­for­mance of writerly self-flag­el­la­tion, self-dis­gust, even masochism; a night­mare of frus­tra­tion, thwarted ide­al­ism, shame; a dis­sec­tion of a still-liv­ing corpse, the ghost­writer’s own. Most tales of sell­ing one’s soul to the devil in­volve a sig­nif­i­cant ex­change and may be cloaked in gran­deur and mys­tery (Goethe’s Faust, Mann’s Dr. Faus­tus, Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness). Kif’s trans­ac­tion with the con man, Siegfried Heidl (“Ziggy”), in­volves no such lofty prom­ises. A witty in­sight into the novel’s grav­i­tas is de­liv­ered as a ca­sual aside from an ob­server: “The word shit­hole, Ray said, is too in­ter­est­ing for a shit­hole like this.” Kif calls Ziggy’s smile “an un­der­tow of sin­is­ter com­plic­ity.”

First Per­son dif­fers from Flana­gan’s pre­vi­ous works of fic­tion not only in its tone of un­re­lieved dis­gust and dis­may but in the nar­row­ness of its lin­guis­tic scope. There are few ec­static flights of lan­guage, lit­tle won­der at the ter­ri­ble and joy­ful mys­ter­ies of the world, vir­tu­ally no lyri­cism, only anger and in­credulity on Kif’s part that he—“an is­lan­der from an is­land at world’s end where the mea­sure of all things that mat­tered was not man-made, and such sights that moved mod­ern lit­er­a­ture did not move me”—has got­ten him­self into an un­bear­able sit­u­a­tion.

Poor Kif! He seems less a char­ac­ter than an amal­gam of symp­toms of writerly panic, a cre­ation of Eve­lyn Waugh or Martin Amis: “It wasn’t that I wanted to be a writer. It was that I knew I was a writer.” Kif’s publi­ca­tions are few and mod­est, but he once won the “Wangaratta City Coun­cil Edith Lan­g­ley Award” as “pos­si­bly a new voice in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.” Kif turns his most sav­age satir­i­cal in­sights against him­self:

I faced the in­con­ve­nient dilemma of not know­ing how to write a novel, and the grow­ing un­spo­ken ter­ror that per­haps I couldn’t. Writ­ten I had words. Writ­ten I had anec­dotes, the­o­ries, lyri­cal pas­sages of prose . . . . Writ­ten I had noth­ing. Yet un­writ­ten I had a life, feel­ings, mem­o­ries, dreams—a uni­verse! How had I made of this uni­verse of ev­ery­thing a noth­ing of words?... My writ­ing was only words. There was no story. There was no soul.

Kif’s lit­er­ary mod­els—Borges, Kafka, Cortázar—of­fer no answers about how to start seek­ing this soul:

None of them had mort­gage pay­ments they feared ev­ery month they would not make. They played games with time and infinity, made myths of dreams and night­mares. They didn’t even know the ques­tions I tried not to ask, so un­lit­er­ary did my ques­tions seem . . . .

Such as how to af­ford ten litres of paint?

In short, “How to make money?” Mar­ried young, with a child and a wife preg­nant with twins, Kif be­lieves that he has no al­ter­na­tive but to col­lab­o­rate with Ziggy: “I was thirty-one when the magic van­ished and the phone rang.” Soon Kif is ra­tio­nal­iz­ing his de­ci­sion about set­ting aside “moral qualms about work­ing with a crim­i­nal”— “Wasn’t I a writer, af­ter all? Noth­ing was be­neath me.” “Though I had noth­ing to say, I had read enough Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture to know this wasn’t nec­es­sar­ily an im­ped­i­ment to au­thor­ship.” Flana­gan has struc­tured his mono­logue-novel so that we know be­fore­hand that Kif will be dis­ap­pointed by this de­ci­sion. The drama of rev­e­la­tion is some­what un­der­cut by an ele­giac sum­ming-up in the first chapter:

They want to say things, the dead. Or­di­nary things, ev­ery­day things. Of a night they re­turn to me and I al­low them in. I let them their tongue .... But there is no Ziggy Heidl. No Ray. No oth­ers. Back then, be­fore I had writ­ten any­thing, I knew ev­ery­thing about writ­ing. Now I know noth­ing. Liv­ing? Noth­ing. Life? Noth­ing. Noth­ing at all.

It is of­ten said that vic­tims of con men are in­cred­u­lous not so much that the per­son they trusted has turned out to be an out­ra­geous crim­i­nal but rather that they were so naively trust­ing, so will­ing to be­lieve. The “sin­is­ter com­plic­ity” is their down­fall. Where “pure greed” is the mo­ti­va­tion, many, per­haps most, peo­ple are ea­ger to be­lieve the un­likely, pro­vided the con man is plau­si­ble enough: “Don’t you see? [Heidl] said, lean­ing for­ward onto his desk. I made it up. Ev­ery day, just like you. Like a writer.”

The less the con man tells his vic­tims, the more they co­op­er­ate with him: “The more they made it up. In the end, I didn’t have to make up any­thing .... The great­est of prophets has but the vaguest of mes­sages . . . . The vaguer the mes­sage, the greater the prophet.” Heidl shares the psy­chopath’s be­muse­ment over why, to oth­ers, “truth mat­ters.” But he is the an­tithe­sis of Mephistophe­les or Con­rad’s Kurtz. Up close he seems

di­min­ished, ex­hausted, pre­var­i­cat­ing. He seemed phys­i­cally small and per­son­ally in­signif­i­cant. I must have seen im­ages of Heidl a hun­dred times or more on TV and in the pa­pers, but I couldn’t re­ally re­call any­thing about him . . . . I re­mem­ber he didn’t have much hair and he was of in­de­ter­mi­nate age, small, slightly stout, but apart from that—and his twitch­ing cheek—it’s hard to say what he was .... From the be­gin­ning, he was al­ways there and never to be found.

Kif is “sur­prised” that “one of Aus­tralia’s great­est crim­i­nals” is “some­body so mun­dane.”

Even­tu­ally, as if catch­ing a con­ta­gious dis­ease, Kif ab­sorbs some of Heidl’s traits of de­ceit and sub­terfuge. He gives up on au­then­tic­ity, ra­tio­nal­iz­ing that a mem­oir is in fact “a se­ries of se­lected lies.” He is en­er­gized, even in­spired:

I found within me a man with­out morals, who could pre­tend to any feel­ing that was nec­es­sary in or­der to gull oth­ers. Like Heidl, I tried on emo­tions, wore them for so long as they were use­ful, then changed into some­thing fresh .... To write about Heidl I had no need of Heidl.

Heidl is the quin­tes­sen­tial self-made man—or rather, “a man cease­lessly self-mak­ing.” Kif dis­cov­ers his pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions in Bavaria, Vi­enna, and else­where: “He had many births and many par­ents, and his ori­gins were as mys­ti­cal and pro­tean as the gods of old. Each in­car­na­tion more mys­te­ri­ous than the last, Heidl be­gat Heidl who be­gat Heidl.” Heidl’s pub­lic per­sona was “dreary be­yond be­lief, a cloy­ing tale of an av­er­age man who loved his fam­ily and worked hard help­ing oth­ers.” Yet oddly “there was about him that in­tol­er­a­ble sen­su­al­ity you some­times see in an an­i­mal.” Later, Kif comes to re­al­ize that Heidl wasn’t even that awe­some a crim­i­nal:

He swin­dled the banks of seven hun­dred mil­lion, but soon enough the world would be swin­dled by so much more...junk bonds, no doc loans, de­riv­a­tives . . . . Names like En­ron, Lehman Brothers, North­ern Rock and Bear Stearns .... Ev­ery one of them im­pres­sive from far away, the prom­ise of good things. And up close empty, rust­ing black holes.

How­ever, it is Heidl’s very “evil” that in­spires Kif: “I loathed Heidl yet I was now con­demned to writ­ing an en­tire book in his voice . . . . And I had to do it in a way that might keep them read­ing un­til the last page.” When the mem­oir fi­nally ar­rives, Kif hates it: “I had not ex­pected to hate it so much.”

By the novel’s end, af­ter a rev­e­la­tion by a friend who’d also worked for Heidl, Kif de­clares un­ex­pect­edly that “he was the clos­est thing to a man of ge­nius I ever met.” By this time Kif has meta­mor­phosed into a “mate” of the con man. (“It was as if a door I had been push­ing on for­ever had un­ex­pect­edly opened and I was fall­ing through it into a void on the other side.”) He has be­come cor­rupted him­self, in his own eyes at least, hav­ing jet­ti­soned his wife, given up on lit­er­a­ture and made a suc­cess for him­self as a pur­veyor of Aus­tralian trash TV: “I dis­cov­ered in Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion of the 1990s a lack of con­vic­tion even greater than my own.”

Still, epipha­nies and apho­risms abound in First Per­son: gem-like re­marks that float in­de­pen­dent of nar­ra­tive con­text. Nat­u­rally, all of them be­long to Heidl:

A life isn’t an onion to be peeled, a palimpsest to be scraped back to some orig­i­nal, truer mean­ing. It’s an in­ven­tion that never ends.

Any fool can en­dure be­ing killed . . . . It’s en­dur­ing killing that takes some­thing else.

All hu­man con­tact is a form of dis­ap­point­ment.

Richard Flana­gan as John Friedrich

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