In 1991 a struggling young Australian writer by the name of Richard Flanagan was given an offer he couldn’t refuse: $10,000 to ghostwrite an autobiography in just six weeks.
The subject? John Friedrich, who was at the time Australia’s most notorious – and mysterious – conman. A man who, much like a novelist, made a living by blending fact and fiction; by finding and exploiting the verisimilitude of lies.
Three weeks into the assignment, Friedrich killed hinself. Flanagan finished the book anyway, and while it ended up in the nonfiction shelves it was in many ways a work of fiction: he barely knew his subject, and didn’t really know what was fact, what was half-truth and what was pure invention.
A quarter of a century later he has returned to this experience for First Person, a fictionalised account of that strange time. Like the actual autobiography on which it is based, this book too is fiction as memoir, truth as lie: not unlike Michael Chabon’s 2016 novel Moonglow, which also blended biography and invention.
Here, the narrator is not Flanagan himself but a thinly-veiled alter-ego, Kif, and the conman is Ziggy Heidl. The story follows all the same broad contours as Flanagan’s own, but it’s impossible to know how closely he is adhering to the details. One suspects much of what he’s writing is fact, as seen through the filter of memory; but one suspects too that nothing is meant to be taken as literal truth.
It is then a personal story but also a parable for our age of fake news and institutional distrust and – though his name is never mentioned he looms large here – that ultimate conman who currently occupies the White House.
Many a novel and many a philosopher has asked the question, what is truth? Flanagan asks, does anyone even care anymore?
It is one of Flanagan’s more accessible novels – think more Death of a River Guide than Gould’s Book of Fish. It never comes close however to matching the soaring grandeur of his greatest work, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is a minor work from a major author.