"First Person" by Richard Flanagan (2017)
"Early on the Sunday afternoon, a few hours before my flight back to Melbourne, Gene Paley rang to say he had read the draft chapter. He declared it good as far as it went. Though he felt I had conveyed something of the psychology of Heidl, what he needed now was a story. Readers need a story. The trade, he went on, needs a story."
Richard Flanagan is an Australian novelist born in Tasmania. Two of his other novels, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Gould's Book of Fish, have also been reviewed here.
In First Person, his newest book, an aspiring novelist takes on the job of ghostwriting an autobiography for a notorious con man. He finds the task much more difficult than he first imagined, and he is confronted by constant attempts at psychological manipulation.
On another level, it's a novel about writer's block, featuring the author-as-protagonist setup familiar from any number of other writers ranging from Stephen King to Philip Roth. It's also tirelessly depressing, endlessly repetitive, and that big "reveal" you're waiting for never comes. The author offers us not so much a story as a state of mind, and I'd have to say that the results are decidedly mixed.
As someone who loved Gould's Book of Fish and admired The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I'd have to say that First Person is something of a misfire for Richard Flanagan. I went into it wanting to enjoy it, but now that I'm done with it I find myself wanting to read a novel with more of a story, with more variety, and with something more to say. The kind of existential despair conveyed through First Person is just a bit too easy, and I know the author could have done a lot better.