Man Booker prizewinner Richard Flanagan has written one of the most extraordinary clever and insightful books I’ve read in years.
First Person is his defence of fiction and the role of ‘truth’ in the ballooning memoir genre. In his novel he tells the story of struggling writer Kif Kehlmann, who is hired to ghost write the autobiography of a con man – German/Australian Ziggy Heidl. Back in the 90s Flanagan himself had the same $10,000 offer to ghost write a memoir for John Friedrich, an infamous Australian corporate fraudster. This is where the book posits itself, inside the process of writing a book, a fabricated memoir for someone who refuses to tell their story, or at least a version that could be equated with anything considered ‘truth’.
There are immense themes in this book as Flanagan draws lines between his own experience and his fiction, a feeling that there is something almost mythic in this complex Rubic’s cube of lies. Or is it truth?
‘I think literary memoir has become the literary equivalent of a selfie,’ says Flanagan from his hotel room in Sydney. ‘I think all the changes we are suddenly seeing in society – the growing inequality, the powerlessness are greased with this solecism we see in social media. In America in particular you see this profound distrust of fiction, so the only literature that has merit, according to that mindset, is that which can be verifiable as reality.’
Flanagan believes that the many truths we impart are more powerful than this sense that there is just one inherent truth – one meaning.
‘Perhaps the truths we need now are those contained in fiction,’ says Flanagan. ‘We are in an age where we are told that reality, in the form of climate change, and told grotesque fictions as a truth, the more implausable the the lie, the more we are willing to believe it… at the same time coupled to that, there is a great push on to accept that we are only one thing. Mark Zuckerberg said that privacy is no longer an acceptable social norm, under Facebook no-one can have a separate identity in their private life and working life. To me that seems that to be the goal of totalitarian regimes.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said we have three lives: a public life, a private life and a secret life, and in the private and secret lives are aspects of ourselves; they remind us that we aren’t just one thing and that we are capable of being many things. The power of literature is to remind us of that.’
In his fiction about the writing of a memoir, ironically the writer really has sold his soul to the devil. Kif is a successful reality TV producer and writer looking back at the defining moment when he ‘fell’.
Flanagan has a very interesting take on reality.
‘Reality,’ he says ‘is the most unrealistic way of explaining what the world.’
He believes our obsession with selfies as the creation of a cultural narrative about who we are has fed the epidemics of loneliness and sadness and powerlessness because ‘we forget that we are fundamentally connected to each other’.
‘In a world where privacy is so much under attack, writing and reading books seems like a more subversive act than its ever been – it’s like books are the new counter culture,’ laughs Flanagan. ‘I saw an actress at the Emmys saying she doesn’t have a TV and she prefers to read books – and she was slammed for it. I thought how extraordinary; in a world where there seem to be no taboos, reading has become the new taboo. That is what is giving books a renewed power, and why there is a renewed interest in books.’
For Flanagan First Person was a book about freedom.
‘The question we are all confronting in this strange new world is whether or not we wish to be free. We have to decide that, whether we wish to be free, we have to act, and that is a profound dilemma for each of us.’
The book isn’t just about the multiplicity of truths we access through fiction; it’s very much about the process of writing.
‘I wanted to write a book about the process of writing and the strange union that happens when life and work and subject and soul all become one and the one all expresses itself as words; there’s not much writing about the act of writing…’ says Flanagan.
In First Person Flanagan manages to articulate that which we can’t articulate: those fleeting moments of pure serenity where, in our sea of confusion, overwhelm and routine in a tiny moment the truth of the universe seems to reveal itself. And then go.
‘What I wanted to capture was that sense we all share that sometimes in a very most ordinary moments of life we are suddenly open to the universe and we live in those few moments; we live in the universe. We have these profound moments and we’re lost to it; it’s like trying to remember a cloud, and we can’t describe it. I wanted to convey that remarkable feeling we can’t – that glimpse about what the world and life actually are. I like to remind readers these moments are for all of us; they aren’t the province of just artists.’
But as a writer Flanagan admits to being a bit of a storm chaser of these moments.
‘You try to achieve a kind of transparency between your soul and your words,’ he says. ‘Where most of life demands that you put a shield between your life and your actions, the writer has to try to find a way into their soul each morning and you fail… but then you try again.’
One of the bigger themes is about good and evil and where the lines blur.
‘Evil is intoxicating for people. I think everyone wants to dance with the devil a little bit, and Kif has the arrogance of thinking he is a good man and thinks he has the wit and the character to dance with the devil and not become him. Milton, I think, has Satan say: ‘Hell is wherever I am’. I think that is an aphorism of our age; we are fascinated by darkness, and don’t realise we have become it.’
Flanagan’s fiction is littered with insights and remembered quotes from great writers. He finishes our conversation by referring to Kafka, who best explains his view on what fiction should be.
‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.’
This book is not just an axe, it’s a chainsaw.
The Byron Writers Festival present a very special In Conversation event with Kerry O’Brien chatting with Richard Flanagan at Elements of Byron on Tuesday 10 October 6–7pm. Tickets $20 /25 and are available from the website byronwritersfestival.com.