In a brilliant third act, Flanagan turns his savage mockery to the recent trend of autobiographical fiction, including the celebrated, multivolume My Struggle by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. Full of hilarious asides, this sonorous, blackly comic novel offers searing insight into our times.
First Person is both comic and frightening. At times I caught a glimpse of Money-era Martin Amis in Flanagan’s satirical asides on the Australian publishing industry ... Yet there are also passages touched with the virtuosity that shone so brightly in The Narrow Road that are pure Flanagan ... 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.
If ever you’ve 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 ... If the first half boasts a shimmering ingenuity and ominousness, the second half goes down in a Hindenburg of repetition and falsity and tedium ... But at its most persuasive, First Person is an aria on the necessity of self-invention, on the loops and lacunas of memory and the bullish inadequacy of all language ... At a time when truth is daily contorted, debauched or ignored, we require Flanagan’s artful reminder of the wreckage caused by our unwillingness to say what happened.
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 ... The components of First Person that don’t involve Heidl directly seem to exist at a strange distance from its centre, either because the characters are drawn too sketchily, or because Flanagan writes about them in prose of a different quality from the main part of his 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. It’s a bold move, but more interesting in terms of argument than character or style – both of which feel rather papery.
Flanagan places you vividly in Kif’s mind as he deals with Ziggy’s nonstop flow of evasions, paranoia, boasts and rages. Kif’s own backstory — he was raised in a rural Tasmanian backwater, married a kindhearted woman he clearly doesn’t love and is probably deluding himself about his writing-career prospects — suggests he’s a likely Siegfried Heidl victim in the making. Still, when Ziggy makes a shocking demand of him, it’s as confounding to the reader as it is to Kif ... First Person becomes a sinister fable of identity exchange ... Ziggy and Kif, though, in the wizardly hands of Flanagan, take deliciously menacing surprise turns.
Things get pretty meta in Richard Flanagan’s novel First Person ... Flanagan skewers other aspects of the literary world ... Flanagan writes brilliantly about writing: the obsession over word count, the hot-and-cold alternating convictions that your work is brilliant and that it’s atrocious, the writing process itself ... Flanagan’s prose is sharp, aphoristic, and clever. Almost too clever. His observations are so on-point that he makes them again and again, the same observation cloaked in a different collection of astute words. All very fun to read, but after a while, it gets to be a glut of shrewd observation, a cyclical self-indulgence employed to hammer the message home. But maybe that, too, is a wry comment on the state of literature.
Richard Flanagan’s new novel approaches this shift in the zeitgeist by taking us back to the early ’90s and focusing on a time when out-and-out liars could still surprise us ... While Heidl as a character is deeply compelling, and Flanagan writes with acute sensitivity...for a long stretch the story idles, taking us through the circular routine of Kif’s 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.
Heidl is a cipher, and although Flanagan strains mightily to make this blankness the basis of his fraudulent success, with some philosophical riffs about how people faced with a lack of information will make up their own stories, it doesn’t ring true ... The novel does improve in its closing chapters, with sharp vignettes about Kif’s subsequent career in Australian television and an acid assessment of the 1990s ... If only the much lengthier chapters inflating Heidl’s political and metaphysical significance were as apt and pointed. Ambitious and stuffed with ideas that, regrettably, don’t translate into compelling fiction.
The menacing tone established early on loses momentum as Kif struggles and fails to get facts from Heidl, while realizing he’s losing his own moral probity in a Faustian bargain. Flanagan is sharply satiric about Australia and its publishing industry, political chicanery, and corporate malfeasance; the heavy Australian focus, however, may be a stumbling block to American readers not already familiar with the terrain