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