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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

First Person

Richard Flanagan

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To purchase First Person

Title: First Person
Author: Richard Flanagan
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 351 pages
Availability: First Person - US
First Person - UK
First Person - Canada
Der Erzähler - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neat variation on the struggling-writer-story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian A 7/10/2017 Sunil Badami
Financial Times B+ 24/11/2017 Carl Wilkinson
The Guardian . 4/11/2017 Andrew Motion
Literary Review . 11/2017 Lucian Robinson
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/6/2018 Olen Steinhauer
The New Yorker . 28/5/2018 .
Sydney Morning Herald . 2/10/2017 Peter Kenneally
The Times . 11/11/2017 John Sutherland
TLS . 7/11/2017 Simon Caterson
The Washington Post . 5/4/2018 William Giraldi

  From the Reviews:
  • "While some Booker winners struggle to achieve the same critical acclaim for their next book, Flanagan, with this intensely personal novel, may have written an even better one. And when he candidly and honestly confronts the raw truths of the writing life and the family life, material and spiritual poverty, love and despair and desire, he touches on genuine brilliance, leavened by moments of wry humour. Itís funny, of course, because itís true." - Sunil Badami, The Australian

  • "First Person is both comic and frightening. At times I caught a glimpse of Money-era Martin Amis in Flanaganís satirical asides on the Australian publishing industry (.....) And thereís a hint, too, of an epochal gloom that is redolent of the The Great Gatsby. (...) Although structurally Flanagan struggles to reconcile the comedy and tragedy, and his musings on fact versus fiction, the self versus the collective, into a distinct whole, First Person, too, is studded with sharp, breath-catching observations about the finite nature of life. " - Carl Wilkinson, Financial Times

  • "As the book effectively opens with a résumé of the entire plot, the central part of First Person involves a large amount of recapitulation; it is constantly in danger of grinding to a halt, no matter how often Flanagan tries to tease the narrative forward. (...) None of these things becomes more interesting simply by being repeated, and none of them is significantly enriched by contact with other elements of the book (.....) In his final pages, Flanagan tries to reconcile these diverse elements by elevating his antihero to the status of a messenger from the future. Itís a bold move, but more interesting in terms of argument than character or style -- both of which feel rather papery." - Andrew Motion, The Guardian

  • "While Heidl as a character is deeply compelling, and Flanagan writes with acute sensitivity about Kifís swelling anxieties made deeper by his gradually crumbling marriage, for a long stretch the story idles, taking us through the circular routine of Kifís daily slog. (...) Like so much autobiography, First Person is about nostalgia, for a lost age when once we could be horrified by outright lies, use the word "evil" to describe it and fear what might follow our acceptance of it." - Olen Steinhauer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Flanagan cannot quite make Ziggyís magnetism or sinister influence plausible, but the novel, with its switchbacking recollections and cyclical dialogue, its penetrating scenes of birth and, eventually, death, is enigmatic and mesmerizing." - The New Yorker

  • "Once Flanagan's art begins to show itself as armour beneath Kif's op-shop wardrobe, it's admirably effective. Characters move the story along in dialogue, recounting histories and giving warnings, with Ray in particular emerging as a kind of deus ex gothica whenever a revelation is required to have that extra frisson of ancient mariner about it. (...) First Person is, as advertised, a meditation on truth and fiction, but however gamely constructed, it meditates itself into a corner, because it asks a question it isn't really very interested in: What is truth ?" - Peter Kenneally, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "First Person is, in the Australian vernacular, a portrait of the artist as a stupid bastard. (...) First Person is a bleaker book than The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014), Flanaganís previous, Booker Prize-winning novel. (...) (A)nyone familiar with the Australian publishing scene may enjoy Flanaganís wry digs at one or two of the more self-regarding (and identifiable) publishers and popular authors." - Simon Caterson, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The narrative consists of a panting pas de deux between Heidl and Kehlmann as they toil to get the book written, which means inventing Heidlís history wholesale because he wonít admit to anything: not to facts, not to motives, not even to his boyhood. (...) If ever youíve wanted to read a book about the impossibility of writing a book, First Person is the book for you, a story about a storyteller trying to decode another storyteller. (...) First Person could do with some pruning after the midpoint, some tautening of the narrative cords. If the first half boasts a shimmering ingenuity and ominousness, the second half goes down in a Hindenburg of repetition and falsity and tedium." - William Giraldi, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The outlines of much of First Person appear to closely follow real-life: in 1991, while a struggling, would-be author working on his first novel, his wife pregnant with twins, Richard Flanagan was made an offer he couldn't refuse: ghost-write -- in just a few weeks -- the memoirs of Australia's most notorious con man, John Friedrich, who was about to go on trial for fraud (to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollar). In First Person the author narrating the story is Kif Kehlmann, the con man is Siegfried Heidl, and the year is 1992, but many of the other details are clearly true-to-life -- including Heidl/Friedrich's slippery notion of anything resembling truth and facts, not giving his ghostwriter much to work with.
       It's strictly a work-for-hire project -- Kif won't see any royalties -- and the ten thousand dollars he's being paid is a fraction of what Heidl is getting, but given how little he's scraping together at his other odd jobs, and given his wife's near-term state, it's an opportunity Kif can't pass up. It's immediately clear, however, that Heidl isn't very forthcoming. There's not just an air of mystery to him, he continues to operate like a black hole, and barely offers stories or explanations of any kind. From his background -- he maintains, despite his obvious German accent, that he was born and raised in Australia -- to his business dealings, everything remains, at best, opaque, and Kif struggles to get together anywhere near enough material to fill out a book. All the while under intense time pressure.
       Heidl suggests -- and is completely satisfied with the idea -- that: "The achievement invents the life it needs in way of explanation", but the problem with that turns out to be Heidl's rather limited and dubious achievements, best summed-up by his big-concept and big-money idea, which turns out to have been a vast number of shipping containers -- over two hundred -- each supposedly filled with state of the art material, and all, except one show-piece, in fact empty -- and: "they weren't even real shipping containers, much too flimsy, just cheap copies for set dressing".
       A longtime friend of Kif's, Ray, works for Heidl. Kif and Ray had some wild, adventurous times together in their younger days, and there's the clear suggestion that there's still an air of danger around Ray's activities for Heidl. If not broken by Heidl, Ray clearly feels sullied -- and doesn't see any way out:

     He's like slime, Ray said, looking into the sea wrack of his glass. He covers you. And you can't get him off. That's my dream. He's all over me, this slime, this fuckn awful green slime, dragging me under, and I scrub and I scrub, but I can't get him off.
       Ray also warns his old friend:
     I just wanted to say one thing. Do it, but don't trust him. You understand ?
     No. Not really.
     Don't tell him anything about yourself. You understand ?
     No. Ray --
     Give him nothing. Don't let him in.
       But Heidl really knows how to insinuate himself into others' lives, whether they like it or not; if there's any real talent he has, it's that. Their editor experiences that first-hand -- "Things he shouldn't know, he knows", personal things ... --, and eventually Kif will too. No matter how hard he tries to keep from revealing anything about his family -- who are at least at a safe distance, off the mainland, in Tasmania -- Heidl eventually knows far more than Kif can be comfortable with. Heidl infects everything he comes in contact with.
       The writing of the book, at the publisher's offices, is a painful process. Heidl can hardly concentrate on the business at hand -- often making telephone calls and attending to other things -- and isn't very helpful when Kif can get his attention. He's certainly not very forthcoming with anything substantial.
       Kif, meanwhile, is desperate and frazzled. This is a great opportunity for him -- not the work, but at least the cash -- and with their second and third child on the way he and his wife desperately need the money. Then there's the concern about his wife's far-advanced pregnancy -- and then the birth of the twins, before the book is finished.
       Kif wants to be an author, to see himself as an author, but he doesn't know if that's achievable. Ghost-writing a memoir hardly seems like real writing -- even if there's perhaps more invention and creativity called for than he might have expected for a supposedly true-life tale -- and he constantly doubts himself and his abilities. Confronting Heidl as the book nears completion, he sums this mess up well:
I've written my book in spite of you, and now all I'm asking is one thing; just one. Just help me correct any obvious errors in the lies I've made up on your behalf.
       The real Friedrich committed suicide before the book was completed and he was to stand trial, and here too First Person does not seem too diverge much from the outlines of what really happened. It's not an unexpected twist -- certainly not for Australian readers familiar with the backstory -- but it also allows Flanagan to go to (even) darker places .....
       The novel opens with present-day Kif, looking back on these events from a quarter of a century ago. He mentions that nowadays: "I content myself with reality TV", as it turns out that, while he was able to complete that first novel with the time and freedom bought by writing Heidl's memoir, Kif couldn't establish himself as a writer and he drifted off into TV instead -- enjoying considerable success with that. Already on the opening page, he notes that when they hired him to write the memoir, there were fears: "that I might relapse into literature", into that creative writing that he was drawn to (and which the real-life Flanagan eventually found great success with) -- but the memoir-writing-experience crushed that out of him. First Person -- told in the first person -- may be an attempt to write again, in the way he once hoped to, but it's also only memoir, Kif's record of what, in many ways, is his failed life -- certainly his failed-as-a-writer life.
       Of course, First Person can be read as an alternate-biography, Flanagan imagining what might have been, if things had gone just slightly differently, if he had handled things differently -- more interesting than this sort of exercise usually is, because so much of it is anchored in actual experience.
       Kif wallows in the Heidl-memoir writing experience at length -- arguably too much, but it seems the right approach. First Person isn't memoir, after all, not real memoir (if there is such a thing ...), and so the focus is ultimately only secondarily on the life-action. This is a writer's story, a cautionary tale about wanting and trying to be a writer, and everything that entails. Kifs intense weeks are extreme, and Flanagan allows the experience to break his protagonist-as-writer; in real life, of course, we know Flanagan emerged successfully, that he made it, eventually, all the way to the Man Booker Prize ..... The turn of events that separate this novel from memoir, the conclusion that is recognizably fiction, may seem an odd choice to make, yet ultimately Flanagan's decision not to merely write a documentary memoir seems the correct one.
       Enjoyably wild and weird.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 May 2018

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First Person: Reviews: Richard Flanagan: Other books by Richard Flanagan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Richard Flanagan was born in 1961 and has won numerous literary prizes for his first three novels.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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