Its first pages seem to announce a novel of formation: Kif, a youthful and destitute father of one and wannabe-writer begins to ghostwrite the memoir of Australia’s most-wanted swindler, in order to pay back his mortgage and prepare for the arrival of his future twins. Moving from raw Tasmania to polished Melbourne for six weeks, he discovers the many absurdities of the publishing world, and meets his own demon, the con man Siegfried “Ziggy” Heidl.
However, it quickly appears that Kif is neither that innocent nor naive. His failure at writing does not stem from lack of life experience – he spent an eventful and dangerous youth with his friend Ray, now Ziggy’s bodyguard, and shares an intense yet bizarre relationship with his wife Suzy – but from an inability to discard his illusions about literature and life. The very last page of First Person is an overwhelming and powerful criticism of what Flanagan calls the “myth of experience”: in our selfie society, fiction is no less important than apparently sincere memoir.
First Person includes several enthralling chapters. Unfortunately, on the whole, the novel never sets a regular pace. Ardent passages, the most remarkable of which depicts a suffering Suzy giving birth to the twins, oddly alternate with slightly dull pages. Interactions between Kif and Ziggy mostly deal with the non-existence of truth and the book yet to be written. Their exchanges are sometimes lightened up by perfunctory and witty attacks on the banking system, but during much of the reading, dialogues seem to recur or drag on unnecessarily.
Lastly, the feelings and ideas elicited by the reading of First Person do not always match the aim Flanagan set for his latest novel in an interview published in The Guardian in March: rising up against our age of post-truth and selfishness, possibly symbolized by the flux of memoirs published every year. Surprisingly enough, to do so, Flanagan draws heavily from his own experience as John Friedrich’s ghostwriter in 1991. Kif encounters the same problems as Flanagan in the same places. Both grapple with the distinction between fiction and autobiography. Sadly, it is uncertain if middle-aged Kif, defeated and full of boredom, can be reasonably considered a sound defendant of the novel in what Flanagan terms an “age of solipsism.”