I have often observed that if you watch films produced in the early 1990s, at first glance the world does not look so strikingly dissimilar from the one that we inhabit. Oh, there are subtle differences in automobiles, clothing and hair styles, but nothing nearly as dramatic as would stand out so starkly as it would if you were to juxtapose certain other decades such as, say, the 1990s with the 1970s, or the 1980s with the 1960s, or the 1960s with the 1940s. But, of course, there is a great glaring dimension of change that transcends it all, that is less superficial and far more central, and the only hint of it in these ‘90s films is that conspicuous in their absence in everyday life are the computers and smart phones ubiquitous today. There are cameos, indeed, of PC’s with massive CRT monitors in office environments, and primitive brick-size cell phones wielded by select actors, but these are simply portents of a future with implications that were hardly yet imagined.
The revolution in technology did not wear an iconic hat that clearly and visibly marked what has surely been as earth-shattering to the evolution of human civilization as the move to food production some twelve thousand years ago, or the advent of the Industrial Revolution two and a half centuries ago. But in the relatively brief span that elapsed between the release of two flicks in the crime heist genre—Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in 1992 and Martin McDonagh’s Baby Driver in 2017—the world has undergone a vast change that we perhaps have yet to fully comprehend. GPS, DNA, IPOD, CPU, IPHONE, DROID, WEBCAM, WINDOWS-10, MAC-AIR, GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, CCTV, STREAMING, DVR, DRONE—these are all shorthand that shout out not only what we have gained, but most notably what we have lost in an irrevocably altered universe that on its face looks otherwise so familiar to us. In the end, some things we may never have thought were at risk—things like privacy and anonymity—have forever vanished. It feels like we have lost something else, as well, something far more critical, but we have yet to find the words to fully articulate that loss.
The plot of Richard Flanagan’s First Person: A Novel is not specifically concerned with all of that, yet it is evident in the metaphorical subtextual underscore that is only subtly revealed in the nuanced quasi-epilogue that closes out this magnificent novel. Much of the narrative is set in the early 1990s, although there is clearly a look back from the present-day that is only made manifest at its end. This is fitting because First Person was published in 2017, and Flanagan’s own first novel, Death of a River Guide, in 1994. But there is much more to it than that.
Before he wrote fiction, Flanagan was just a young Tasmanian aspiring novelist retained for $10,000 on a punishing six-week schedule to ghostwrite the memoir of John Friedrich, an infamous con-man on trial for defrauding banks of hundreds of millions of dollars. Fredrich killed himself before the work was complete, but the finished book saw posthumous publication in 1991. The subtitle of First Person—”A Novel”—is perhaps a satirical clarification of what the author is up to. This is because Flanagan’s latest work is a fictional treatment (or is it?) of precisely this episode from his own life. In this version, the protagonist is Kif Kehlmann, a young Tasmanian aspiring novelist retained for $10,000 on a punishing six-week schedule to ghostwrite the memoir of Siegfried “Ziggy” Heidl, an infamous con-man convicted of defrauding banks of hundreds of millions of dollars. This proves a challenging yet miraculous potential windfall for the poverty-stricken Kif, a struggling would-be novelist attempting to make brittle ends meet, while balancing his roles as father to a young child and husband (in a passionate but volatile relationship) to a beautiful woman, heavily pregnant with twins. Ziggy is an artful manipulator, and soon gets inside Kif’s head, as the project turns to frustration, hopelessness and foreboding. Kif comes to question his own reality, an internal brand of the kind of “gaslighting” that often confronts us in today’s political post-truth universe. In the end, Kif has been not only scarred but permanently altered by the experience, his sense of identity somehow irretrievably lost, and lost along with that has been the very world he once inhabited.
Richard Flanagan remains one of my favorite living novelists. Like all great writers of fiction, he brings much greater themes to storylines that are themselves fascinating and compelling. His epic novel of prisoners of war set to slave labor on the Burma Railway, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 2014. And I consider Gould’s Book of Fish—his 2001 tragicomic tale of a hapless prisoner of an earlier day, distinguished by the author’s own unique use of magical realism—one of the finest novels yet written in the millennium. Flanagan’s latest effort demonstrates that his skill as an artist of words only continues to flourish.
The best part of First Person is in looking back on it after closing the cover. The reader cannot help but wonder which chunks of the novel represent the fictional Kif Kehlmann, and which reflect the authentic Richard Flanagan? And where in the narrative does John Friedrich end and Ziggy Heidl begin? Or vice versa? Have all four men, real and fictional, somehow merged into a single figure that is at once an amalgam of the best and worst features of the four? Most disturbing perhaps, is the harbinger that is the second to last line of the novel: “It’s coming. It’s coming.” Of course, for the author and the rest of us, we certainly know that answer: it’s already here.
[I have reviewed several other novels by Richard Flanagan here: Death of a River Guide: https://regarp.com/2015/07/23/review-of-death-of-a-river-guide-by-richard-flanagan/; The Sound of One Hand Clapping: https://regarp.com/2017/06/04/review-of-the-sound-of-one-hand-clapping-by-richard-flanagan/; and, The Narrow Road to the Deep North: https://regarp.com/2015/02/02/review-of-the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north-by-richard-flanagan/]