No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, November 09, 2017

2017/89: First Person -- Richard Flanagan

What do you mean lies? Heidl said. His tone had altered. Being with Heidl was like eating an ice cream that turned into underarm deodorant that turned into an echidna. [loc. 2505]
Kif Kehlmann, a penniless young writer, is approached by notorious corporate fraudster Siegfried Heidl, who proposes a deal: $10,000 to ghost-write Heidl's biography, in six weeks. Kif, whose wife is pregnant and whose bank account is nearly drained, would like to be able to afford to refuse. He wants to write a great Australian literary novel, not a conman's life story. But he has to make some money somehow, soon, and Heidl has already produced an outline. How hard can it be?

Very hard indeed. The 'interviews' Kif has with Heidl turn into rambling, structureless reminiscence and philosophising, and Kif finds it impossible to extract any usable content from them. Worse, his failure to produce a draft for the publisher is draining his confidence. It's been his ambition since childhood to be an author, but all he has is a heap of disconnected notes, evidence that he can't write a book. Worst of all, Heidl's cheerily nihilistic utterances ("You should give up writing, he said. Have some fun while you can. Before you’re sacrificed.") are having an insidious effect on Kif's own psyche.

And who is Heidl, anyway? It becomes apparent that 'Siegfried Heidl' is the latest in a series of identities, the persona of a master manipulator. Heidl doesn't really change over the course of the novel, although we learn more about his unsavoury past. Perhaps at heart there's nothing there, no first person: a hollow man without the principles, creativity or individuality that Kif values in himself. Kif does change, or rather is changed. Heidl hollows him out.

There is some glorious prose here, and some very funny scenes (some of which are also very dark). I didn't engage with it, though: Heidl is slippery and evasive and seems to have no actual personality, and Kif is self-pitying, ineffectual and all too easily warped by Heidl's company.

According to Flanagan, this novel draws heavily on his own experience of ghost-writing the biography of John Friedrich, a notorious Australian conman who apparently committed suicide rather than face trial. I'm not sure if that means that Kif's reflections on the Australian publishing world ("Though I had nothing to say, I had read enough Australian literature to know this wasn’t necessarily an impediment to authorship") mirror Flanagan's own early experiences. And I hope the denouement of the novel is not written from life.

Read for review, via NetGalley: I have to say that the ARC I received was so poorly formatted (no capital Gs or Ds, random line breaks, etc) that reading it was hard work.

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