When a writer’s previous novel was an operatic showpiece that earned the Man Booker Prize, his new novel has a lot to live up to. Australian novelist Richard Flanagan follows 2014’s “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” with “First Person,” in which corporate con man Siegfried Heidl has defrauded banks of $700 million. Free on bond but about to be imprisoned forever, he’s in need of a ghostwriter to concoct his memoir because he’s in need of the publisher’s money. Enter Kif Kehlmann, a brooding and hamstrung novelist with one child already and a spouse expecting twins. He needs the money, too.
The narrative consists of a panting pas de deux between Heidl and Kehlmann as they toil to get the book written, which means inventing Heidl’s history wholesale because he won’t admit to anything: not to facts, not to motives, not even to his boyhood. He claims he’s a native Australian but speaks English with an unignorable German accent. “I have been missing since I was born,” he says. Kehlmann’s task is to sort Heidl’s fictions from his truths, and to keep his own sanity intact long enough to get paid. “The past is always unpredictable,” Kehlmann says at the outset, and it will prove much more unpredictable than he suspects.
Siegfried Heidl is the fictional doppelganger of John Friedrich, the real-life Australian fraudster whose extravagant crimes revealed the staggering incompetence of certain banks and government agencies. At the time of Friedrich’s death in 1991 — he was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head — he was working on a memoir with, yes, Richard Flanagan.
Heidl comes off as a sinister alloy of Bernie Madoff and Mephisto: He is entropy made flesh, a seething, babbling id impervious to the sobrieties of the superego. When Heidl is willing to talk to Kehlmann, he talks in a qualmless gala of paranoia and parentheses, of non sequitur and evasion, of conspiracy and antinomy, of sundered sermons. Such persistent, menacing furtiveness promises to wreck Kehlmann’s nerves, or else promises to tug him over to the dark side, to Heidl’s state of moral relativism and anarchy. The structures and strictures of society, the rules of wrong and right, lies and truth? What rules?
To Heidl, the bankers and politicians are the real scoundrels, scurvy in their double-dealing and greed. And his own greed? We can summon Auden here, from his poem “The Novelist”: “Among the Just/ Be just, among the Filthy filthy too.” To Heidl, it’s a filthy world wherein only the filthy win. Except Heidl doesn’t look fit to win anything now. He might not wiggle loose from the repercussions of his crimes or the damnation to which he’s consigned his own soul. Kehlmann is the afflicted witness to his destruction — and to his own.
In one version of the Greek myth of Proteus, the sea god, if you can catch him and hold him, he will terrify you with your most potent fears, but if you can hold on to him long enough, if you can stand the terror, he will also answer your largest question: He will tell you the truth. This is the essence of the maddening grapple between Heidl and Kehlmann. 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. “In the silence that followed silence followed,” Kehlmann says, and that’s a pretty good description of writer’s block.
Some of Flanagan’s novels tend to soldier on for longer than they should — his most impressive showings weigh in near the 300-page mark — and “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. Flanagan’s prose becomes languidly reliant on the verb “feel” and all its conjugations. I stopped counting how many times Kehlmann says “I had no idea.”
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. “Truth is a story” Heidl says, one that “needs lies so we can grasp it.” 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.
William Giraldi is the author, most recently, of “The Hero’s Body: A Memoir.”
By Richard Flanagan
Knopf. 368 pp. $26.95