It may be true that, as Dr. Johnson said, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. But there are things that no man but a blockhead will write whatever the price, if he values his reputation, sanity, and soul. Horoscopes, weight-loss clickbait, Dianetical exegesis, and caveman erotica all belong to this category. But worst of all, the ultimate sellout, the recipe for spiritual suicide, is the as-told-to celebrity autobiography. There’s a reason they call it ghostwriting: It turns you into a shuffling, whispering, barely there husk of a man. Boswell had it too easy.
Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian author of the 2014 Man Booker Prize winner The Narrow Road to the Deep North, knows this feeling well. In the early 1990s, he was contracted to ghostwrite the memoirs of John Friedrich, a notorious Australian grifter, in the mere six weeks prior to Friedrich’s fraud trial. Flanagan was then a writer at the beginning of his career, laughably poor, on the cusp (or brink) of fatherhood, and presumably gnawed by fear and self-doubt. The price ($10,000) was right, and Codename: Iago: The Story of John Friedrich saw print despite its subject’s (and ostensible author’s) committing suicide in the middle of its composition.
Now, years later, older and wiser and well established, Flanagan has revisited that grim experience in First Person. A lightly fictionalized account of working with a criminal — and criminally insufferable — maniac, the book has a chameleonic quality. Much like Ziggy Heidl, its stand-in for Friedrich, First Person is many different things. It is a blackly comic workplace novel; a true-ish crime tale; a meditation on the ultimate nature of truth; and, perhaps most successfully, a grave warning to anyone foolish enough to want to become a writer.
“Ziggy Heidl’s point of view,” writes Kif Kehlman, our Flanagan surrogate, “was that his twelve-thousand-word manuscript . . . said everything that anyone would ever be interested in reading about Ziggy Heidl. My job as a writer, he went on, was simply to sharpen his sentences, and perhaps elaborate here and there a little on his account.”
This attitude — in its laziness, its disrespect for how difficult writing is, its readiness to devalue the writer’s indispensable toil — will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has been in Kif Kehlman’s position. That “twelve-thousand-word manuscript” is a nice touch, since it would require a miracle on the order of the loaves and fishes to turn what could only resemble a long-form magazine profile into an entire book with nothing more than a little “sharpening” and “elaboration.” (Twelve thousand words, incidentally, sounds like about the point where an egomaniacal impulse to see one’s memoirs in print would run up against insuperable frustration at having to sit still and write them.)
If Heidl’s blithe insistence on the impossible is obnoxious, at least he has the excuse of being a narcissist or a sociopath. The same cannot be said for Kif’s grotesque, hilariously philistine editor, Gene Paley, who ought to know better but whose best “advice” is “Try finishing a first draft . . . quickly.” Kif’s increasingly panic-inducing interactions with Gene allow Flanagan to satirize the absurdities and occupational hazards of a publishing industry in decline. He also, more important, lets Flanagan introduce one of his major themes, masculinity.
Gene’s body “gave the impression of never having done any manual work,” Kif writes. “A man as seemingly unconcerned about being named Gene as Gene Paley, was, I realised, a man beyond the conventions of masculine self-doubt as I had been brought up to understand them.” Of course Kif would think in these terms: Masculine self-doubt is the prime mover in both the crime world and the writing world of First Person. Ziggy Heidl’s crime — a baroque piece of corporate fraud that will put the reader in mind of Glengarry Glen Ross, Bernie Madoff, and the like — is, like all cons, reliant not only on deception but also on compelling self-assertion. It is the product, in short, of masculine self-non-doubt.
Kif simply wants a deeper and more honest version of what a con man seeks by other means. Of his friend Ray, the small-time crook and bruiser who puts him on Heidl’s radar, Kif notes ruefully that “Ray felt being a writer was like doing the dive masters course he had taken some years before to work as a scuba diving guide on the Great Barrier Reef: a short explanation of theoretical issues, some technical matters to be learnt and practised before you took to f***ing English backpackers ten metres down amidst schools of gropers and fairy fish.” Kif must learn to swim with sharks such as Heidl and Ray if he wants to achieve his own masculine goals: money, fame, his wife’s respect.
Then again, why must he? And why does Heidl make the writing process so difficult for our narrator, refusing time and again to answer straightforward questions, dancing around the only areas of his life that could conceivably interest anybody? This is less clear. We are given to believe that Heidl is cunning, manipulative, a man who can deceive without really lying — a sort of Mephistopheles. Perhaps he was involved in black projects with the CIA. Perhaps he has killed people, or at least associated with people who have killed people. Perhaps he wants to kill Kif.
Part of the fun of First Person is speculating along with Kif as he makes assault after fruitless assault on the earthworks of Heidl’s vague, elliptical personal narrative. But that enjoyment gradually turns to irritation. Kif is not a police investigator, which means that Heidl’s Keyser Söze act, entertaining though it may be, serves no clear purpose. What does Heidl stand to gain, exactly, by thwarting his own ghostwriter? After a particularly ludicrous series of misdirections — Green Berets, drugs, arms dealers, big banks — Kif miserably decides that Heidl’s “purpose with all his stories was to divert me from finishing the book.” The reader asks why, and then, when Heidl, like John Friedrich, writes himself out of his own story, the reader asks, No, really — why?
With Heidl dead, Kif remarks: “The contract I felt I had with the truth . . . was, it seemed to me, over. . . . The truth of him was unknowable. I resolved to act in the spirit of Heidl by simply making it up each day, as best I could.” Another way of putting this is that Kif was unable to ascertain the truth about Heidl and unwilling to part with $10,000. This, along with a coda about Kif’s going on to a successful career producing reality television, amounts to a powerful comment, if perhaps an unintentionally simple one, about the truth: It exists, quite independently of whether one can get it right, or get it at all.
Flanagan may suffer from the same affliction as men who hire ghostwriters: He thinks his story is a good bit more interesting than it really is. When Kif fears for his safety, or his life, on Heidl’s account, the reader can only shake his head in exasperation: “Cui bono, Kif? It makes no sense!” But Flanagan has produced in First Person a wonderful metaphor for the creative process. Writing a work of imagination is an awful lot like dealing with a slippery client who won’t answer your questions and shows up to appointments only when he feels like it. There’s a good piece of advice in there, for anyone paying attention: Do yourself a favor and get a real job.