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First Person
Cover of First Person
First Person
A novel
Kif Kehlmann, a young, penniless writer, thinks he's finally caught a break when he's offered $10,000 to ghostwrite the memoir of Siegfried "Ziggy" Heidl, the notorious con man and corporate criminal. Ziggy is about to go to trial for defrauding banks for $700 million; they have six weeks to write the book.

But Ziggy swiftly proves almost impossible to work with: evasive, contradictory, and easily distracted by his still-running "business concerns"—which Kif worries may involve hiring hitmen from their shared office. Worse, Kif finds himself being pulled into an odd, hypnotic, and ever-closer orbit of all things Ziggy. As the deadline draws near, Kif becomes increasingly unsure if he is ghostwriting a memoir, or if Ziggy is rewriting him—his life, his future, and the very nature of the truth.

By turns comic, compelling, and finally chilling, First Person is a haunting look at an age where fact is indistinguishable from fiction, and freedom is traded for a false idea of progress.
Kif Kehlmann, a young, penniless writer, thinks he's finally caught a break when he's offered $10,000 to ghostwrite the memoir of Siegfried "Ziggy" Heidl, the notorious con man and corporate criminal. Ziggy is about to go to trial for defrauding banks for $700 million; they have six weeks to write the book.

But Ziggy swiftly proves almost impossible to work with: evasive, contradictory, and easily distracted by his still-running "business concerns"—which Kif worries may involve hiring hitmen from their shared office. Worse, Kif finds himself being pulled into an odd, hypnotic, and ever-closer orbit of all things Ziggy. As the deadline draws near, Kif becomes increasingly unsure if he is ghostwriting a memoir, or if Ziggy is rewriting him—his life, his future, and the very nature of the truth.

By turns comic, compelling, and finally chilling, First Person is a haunting look at an age where fact is indistinguishable from fiction, and freedom is traded for a false idea of progress.
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  • From the book 1

    Our first battle was birth. I wanted it in, he wanted it out. All that day and half of the next we argued. He said it had nothing to do with him. Later I began to see his point, but at the time it seemed bloody-mindedness and evidence of an inexplicable obstruction—as though he didn't actually want any memoir ever written. Of course, he didn't want a memoir written, but that wasn't his point. Or the point. But I only realised this later, much later, when I came to fear that the beginning of that book was also the end of me.

    Too late, in other words.

    These days I content myself with reality TV. There is a void, a loneliness that aches and rattles. That frightens. That terrifies me that I should have lived and never did. Reality TV doesn't have this effect on me.

    Back then though, all this was confusing. It was feared by others that I might relapse into literature. By which I mean allegory, symbol, the tropes of time dancing; of books that didn't have a particular beginning or end, or at least not in that order. By whom I mean the publisher, a man by the unexpected name of Gene Paley. He had been quite specific in this regard: I was to tell a simple story simply, and where it was not simple—when it dealt with the complexities of the spectacular crime—simplify, illustrate by way of anecdote, and never have a sentence that lingered longer than two lines.

    It was whispered around the publishing house that Gene Paley was frightened of literature. And not without good reason. For one thing, it doesn't sell. For another, it can fairly be said that it asks questions that it can't answer. It astonishes people with themselves, which, on balance, is rarely a good thing. It reminds them that the business of life is failure, and that the failure to know this is true ignorance. Maybe there is transcendence in all this, or wisdom in some of it, but Gene Paley didn't see himself in the transcendence game. Gene Paley was all for books telling you one or two things over and over again. But preferably only one.

    Selling, Gene Paley would say, is telling.

    I opened the manuscript again and re-read the opening lines.

    On 17 May 1983, I signed my application letter for the position of Acting Safety Officer (supervisor) (Acting Class 4/5) at the Australian Safety Organisation, with two words, Siegfried Heidl, and my new life began.

    Only much later did I discover that Siegfried Heidl had never existed until that day he signed the letter, so—strictly speaking—it was an honest account. But the past is always unpredictable and, as I was to learn, not his least gift as a con man was that he rarely lied.

    Ziggy Heidl's point of view was that his twelve-thousand-word manuscript—the thin pile of stacked papers on which he would frequently press down with his outstretched hand as if it were a basketball to be bounced and put back into play—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.

    He said this, as he said so much else, with such belief, with such confidence and such conviction, that I found it very difficult to point out, as I had to, that his manuscript made no mention of his childhood, his parents or even, for that matter, his year of birth. His reply has remained with me, even after all these years.

    A life isn't an onion to be peeled, a palimpsest to be scraped back to some original, truer meaning. It's an invention that never ends.

    And when I must have looked struck by his elaborate turn of...
About the Author-
  • RICHARD FLANAGAN's novels, Death of a River Guide, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, Gould's Book of Fish, The Unknown Terrorist, Wanting, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, for which he was awarded the 2014 Man Booker Prize, are published in 42 countries. He lives in Tasmania.
Reviews-
  • Library Journal

    November 15, 2017

    Struggling writer Kif Kehlmann is broke, so of course he accepts an offer to ghostwrite the memoir of corporate bad guy Siegfried Heidl, accused of defrauding the banks of $700 million. Soon, though, Kif feels less lucky than manipulated, as if Heidl weren't disclosing his own life but redirecting Kif's. Flanagan's Man Booker Prize winner, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, has 275,000 copies in print across formats.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2018
    Tasmanian novelist Flanagan follows up his Man Booker winner (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 2014, etc.) with a meditation on the shifting sands of identity and reality.Fledgling writer Kif is hired in 1992 to crank out the memoirs of Ziggy Heidl, who defrauded investors of $700 million through an Australian shell company. They have six and a half weeks to produce a manuscript before Heidl's trial--after which, says cynical Melbourne publisher Gene Paley, "He'll be going to jail for a very, very long time." Kif desperately needs the $10,000 fee: his wife, Suzy, is pregnant with twins, and they're barely scraping by with odd jobs while he struggles to write his first novel. Apart from the proper names, the plot's premises track closely with Flanagan's personal experience a quarter-century ago as ghostwriter for a notorious Australian con man. Their fictional elaboration, unfortunately, is problematic. Heidl is a cipher, and although Flanagan strains mightily to make this blankness the basis of his fraudulent success, with some philosophical riffs about how people faced with a lack of information will make up their own stories, it doesn't ring true. Kif's panicked fear that he is a failure as a writer is painfully plausible, as are his increasing marital problems as he takes out on Suzy his rage with Heidl for refusing to provide even the most minimal information about his past or his scams. But none of this connects persuasively with ominous warnings about Heidl's ability to insert himself into other people's psyches. The novel does improve in its closing chapters, with sharp vignettes about Kif's subsequent career in Australian television and an acid assessment of the 1990s as "some universal collapse of values that was also the beginning of the acceptance of a new violence and a new injustice." If only the much lengthier chapters inflating Heidl's political and metaphysical significance were as apt and pointed.Ambitious and stuffed with ideas that, regrettably, don't translate into compelling fiction.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 5, 2018
    This harrowing if unsubtle story of insidious corruption is a combination of satire, tragicomedy, melodrama, and polemic from Flanagan, winner of the Man Booker for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Narrator Kif Kehlmann is a desperate man. Determined to finish his first novel, nearly destitute, and responsible for a toddler daughter and a wife pregnant with twins, he agrees to take a job that seems too good to be true. If he can ghostwrite the autobiography of a notorious Australian con man convicted of embezzling $700 million, he’ll earn $10,000; if he fails to complete the contract in six weeks, however, he’ll get nothing. The noxious criminal, Siegfried Heidl, is a brutal, repulsive embodiment of evil. He refuses to provide the details Kif needs, but asks intrusive questions about Kif’s family. The menacing tone established early on loses momentum as Kif struggles and fails to get facts from Heidl, while realizing he’s losing his own moral probity in a Faustian bargain. Flanagan is sharply satiric about Australia and its publishing industry, political chicanery, and corporate malfeasance; the heavy Australian focus, however, may be a stumbling block to American readers not already familiar with the terrain. 50,000-copy announced first printing.

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First Person
A novel
Richard Flanagan
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