The Horror! The Horror!: First Person by Richard Flanagan
by Richard Flanagan
Published October, 2017
Two deaths – two executions – are at the heart of the darkness that is Richard Flanagan’s new novel, First Person. One takes place in the wild and remote Gulf country of northern Queensland and the other in the seemingly mundane setting of an outer Melbourne suburb. Notwithstanding these different environments, they are two versions of essentially the same scene. In each, a journey to a place beyond streets, houses, families and women culminates in an act of violence, which is conjured out of the chaos of masculine relationships by the agency of bullying dressed up as mateship. Or, more simply: two men go into the bush with a gun and only one of them comes out.
Ostensibly, First Person is a book about the relationship between a writer and the celebrity criminal whose life he is paid to ‘ghost’. The writer, Kif Kehlmann, aspires to authorship of literary fiction. He only takes the ghost-writing job because, struggling to support his growing family, he can’t afford to turn down the money. The subject whose memoir Kif is tasked to produce is Siegfried Heidl, a notorious con man facing a jail sentence for his audacious financial crimes. Flamboyant yet secretive, Heidl alternately encourages and blocks Kif’s attempts to uncover his life story, until the ghost-writing job comes to resemble one of those impossible tasks in a fairytale, like counting grains of sand or guessing Rumpelstiltskin’s name. It turns out, though, that Heidl’s boastful, lying evasiveness is only the start of the nightmare Kif has stumbled into.
Because of the novel’s doubly retrospective form – the memoir of a memoirist –details of the two executions, including who did what to whom, and how, are not definitively revealed until the final pages. But speculations about and memories of these acts run through the whole novel. They are sites of trauma around which the narrative obsessively circles and to which it compulsively returns, and they show that what is ultimately at stake in this story is not the factors that may cause a writer may lose control of his own voice, but rather the capacity of men in wild places to lose their humanity.
In First Person those wild places are often metaphorical, the bad lands of men’s hearts. Still, it’s significant that both executions take place outdoors, in places where the power of nature dwarfs human aspiration. (Another near-death experience occurs during a storm at sea, in a natural environment that is also inimical to human civility, sanity and survival.) So, Flanagan has something to say about physical wilderness, specifically Australian wilderness, and the way its vast indifference to us puny mortals can disorient social values and impair individual autonomy.
This is, of course, an established trope in modern literature and cinema. First Person evokes memories of Deliverance, Lord of the Flies, Apocalypse Now and, most strongly, the Ur-text behind them all, Heart of Darkness. There is a scene near the end of Flanagan’s novel, an important moment of revelation and confirmation, in which two characters fiddling with an old slide carousel are suddenly confronted with the record of an appalling reality.
I looked up from the carousel to see a blurry image of dark trees appear on the screen. Pia jiggled with the focus, the trees reached forward and as quickly fell back, before forming into the soft image of a rainforest with a tropical tree at its centre from which something was dangling.
The something, although the viewers cannot at first believe their eyes, is a flayed corpse. Reading this passage, I immediately thought of the heads on stakes that encircle Kurtz’s house in the Congo in Heart of Darkness. The image conveys the same sense of atrocity and an implied connection between tropical nature, savagery, and bodily incursion. When I looked up the passage in Heart of Darkness, I discovered a further similarity in the way that both novels use imperfect optical technology to cause a suspenseful delay in the revelation of horror. In Conrad’s novel, Marlow is looking through his telescope for ‘signs of life’ at Kurtz’s partly derelict house, when a chance movement on his part suddenly brings one of the staked heads into clear view and shows that what he thought were wooden ornaments on the fence posts are in fact trophies of Kurtz’s power, evidence of the collapse of his humanity. The slide carousel in First Person performs the function of Marlow’s telescope in Heart of Darkness. It holds the horrific image temporarily at a distance to create a small interval of doubt and confusion before an inconceivable reality is revealed, then allows that reality to be once more put aside and kept separate and distant. (The camera lens is made to do similar work in Apocalypse Now.)
In Heart of Darkness, world-weary Marlow affects nonchalance on the matter of the staked heads, something that Flanagan’s characters, faced with the image of the flayed corpse, cannot do. But it all comes to the same place. While Marlow claims to have no opinion on the question of whether Kurtz’s ‘methods’ were good or bad for business, he argues that the heads ‘only showed’ – only! – that ‘Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts.’ In this, it was ‘the wilderness’ that seduced him. Marlow explains, ‘I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.’
Siegfried Heidl is another such hollow man – and, as it happens, another German trickster-criminal-visionary, whose affinity with darkness and genius for outrageous fabrication find expression in an untamed colonial space far from his homeland. Like Kurtz, Heidl is a swindler, murderer and thief; a confidence man who has orchestrated huge-scale frauds; a self-mythologiser and would-be Nietzschean superman. Both men have vast ambition and the power to subjugate others to their will. Heidl shows a ‘need in some fundamental way to possess everyone he encountered’. Kurtz exhibits at times ‘a weirdly voracious aspect as though he had wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him’. ‘Everything belonged to him – but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own. That was the reflection that made you creepy all over. It was impossible – it was not good for one either – trying to imagine.’ Those sentences refer to Conrad’s Kurtz, but they function equally well to describe Flanagan’s Heidl.
Flanagan has written a Kurtz for our time and place, one whose excesses are bound up with the corporate greed of the eighties and nineties rather than with the imperial scramble of a century earlier. This certainly shows the durability of Conrad’s conception and its transferability to new contexts. Perhaps Flanagan’s homage to Conrad is a way of demonstrating the proposition put forward by one of his characters, that ‘a classic is a book that never finishes what it wants to say’. First Person shows that Conrad’s metaphor of the heart of darkness and the trope of colonial regression on which that metaphor rests are so archetypal that they can function to expose the workings of a whole new set of social and political forces in another century and another continent. They keep having something to say, in an entirely new context, as they also did when Coppola redeployed them in Apocalypse Now.
Yet the sense of déja-vu this produces when one reads First Person is not good, I think, for a writer who is claiming his own space in literary history. Some further twist or turn was needed to ‘make it new’, to refresh or invert or extend the basic conception inherited from Conrad. It doesn’t help that Flanagan reproduces a weakness of Conrad’s novella, which is its constant gesturing towards ineffable enormities. Flanagan’s narrator, Kif Kehlmann, is – like his precursor Marlow – a little too addicted to offering grand statements composed of nebulous abstractions, such as this: ‘His grotesque personality was a monstrosity, something almost deformed. Yet I am convinced that beyond all his endless talk was a larger silence about things of which he would never speak. I sensed a horror born out of a despair and a loneliness so terrifying, so absolute, so universal, that it amounted, for him, to an evil he could not escape….’ Everything hinted at here is so extreme, and at the same time so vague, that it is hard to know how seriously to take it.
Part of the problem – and we face the same challenge reading Heart of Darkness – is that such utterances belong to a character-narrator, and as in any first-person narrative, there’s always the possibility that the narrator’s words reveal more about himself than about the other people he describes. For this reason, it may be useful to read the overwrought emptiness of the passage above as an indicator of Kif’s unsuccessful struggle to account for Heidl’s effect on him, rather than seeing it as a failure by Flanagan to effectively convey his villain’s existential sufferings. Similar choices face the reader when grappling with Marlow’s presentation of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. Kurtz, like Heidl, is said to possess great gifts of persuasive eloquence, but in both cases that is something we are told rather than shown. If the reader remains unimpressed, does it mean the author has failed to carry his conception of the character convincingly through the process of narration? Or should we be thinking more about the character-narrator and his personal investment in the way the story is told – for, in both novels, the narrator needs to attribute almost super-human powers to the villain if he is to account for his own complicity with the lies and outrages of a psychopath.
There’s a further narrative layer to consider, too. In both books, reports from the front line of the villain’s depravity – from the jungle or the rainforest, the scenes of the worst atrocities – issue from hapless yet compromised subordinates, who are unable to express clearly what they have witnessed. In Heart of Darkness Marlow characterises the tale told to him by ‘the Russian’, Kurtz’s accomplice, disciple and nurse, as a ‘tale that was not so much told as suggested to me in desolate exclamations, completed by shrugs, in interrupted phrases, in hints ending in deep sighs.’ Kif’s childhood friend and enduring best mate Ray, who performs the same narrative function in First Person as the Russian in Conrad’s novel, is even less able to articulate his understanding, such as it is, of his experiences with Heidl. The result is passages of dialogue like this one:
Fuck what? I said
Shit, Ray said slowly. He could invest a single meaningless word with the gravitas and mystery of a Nobel laureate glossing string theory.
That’s it, mate.
It, he repeated.
I had no idea what he was on about, but I rarely did.
You know, mate, Ray said, leaning in.…
You fuckn know, Ray said, and winked.
Eloquence has never been a requisite in the Australian literary tradition of the masculine bush yarn. In the best example of the genre, the interpolated ‘lost child’ story in Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life, the narrator of the tale, Steve Thompson, exhibits the ‘sublime lowliness of manner’ that is the hallmark of this narrative style. The problem in First Person, though, is that Ray is not allowed to exhibit a simple ‘lowliness of manner’; rather his inarticulateness is invested with an overblown significance for which we readers are supposed to take the narrator’s word. The resulting claim to profundity comes across as just bombastic, because it fails the basic craft-of-fiction imperative to ‘show, don’t tell’. Percy Lubbock said of Henry James in The Ambassadors, ‘He wishes us to accept nothing from him, on authority – only to watch and learn’. If only Kif, as narrator, had done likewise in his presentation of both Ray and Heidl.
I found the character of Ray unconvincing overall. As a middle-class, female, metropolitan reader, I’m not naturally well positioned to appreciate the working-class, male, provincial experience that Ray represents. But this shouldn’t be an insurmountable problem. I had even less in common with Darky Gardiner in Flanagan’s last novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, yet his portrayal made a great and lasting impression, and not only because of the horrific way he died. It was the character himself that made the impression – his combination of resourcefulness, civility and high spirits, and his desire to survive and keep social relationships alive in the face of the all-consuming death-cult of the Japanese POW system. In the case of the doom-laden and self-destructive Ray in First Person I couldn’t find anything to connect with at all, and the long accounts of his various fights and fuck-ups seemed simply tedious.
Ray, Kif and Heidl are the novel’s three most important characters and they move in an almost exclusively masculine atmosphere. There are wives, and girlfriends, and attempts to pick up women in bars, but essentially, as Marlow says in Heart of Darkness, ‘They – the women I mean – are out of it.’ The two female characters that matter to the story epitomise polar opposite conceptions of womanhood. Earth mother Suzy, Kif’s wife, provides him with ‘comfort’ and ‘oblivion’ and a place of retreat from the stresses of his professional life. His colleague in the publishing industry, Pia, is a lesson in what happens to ambitious career women: she becomes ‘very skinny … a stick’, and is so lonely that she has to pay someone (her hairdresser) to touch her.
At times, when reading this novel, I felt as if I had passed from the realm of colonial romance to that of science fiction, and was learning about a strange society inhabited only by men, in which no women existed except as holographic projections of some masculine need or fear. It was a disorienting experience and I didn’t much like it. On reflection, the unbridgeable gulf between the sexes that First Person presents created a great feeling of sadness in this reader. For me, that gulf was more frightening than the idea of evil deeds done by men to each other in the wild, or of the collapse of identity that exposure to the wilderness can evoke in men.
The reason Marlow gives for keeping the women ‘out of it’ in Heart of Darkness is that, for civilisation’s sake, they must stay in ‘that beautiful world of their own’, safe from contact with the reality of things. This nineteenth-century reasoning does not apply to First Person and is never invoked by Flanagan, thank goodness. The women in this novel are not shielded from reality. Pia sees the image of the flayed corpse, alongside Kif. Suzy undergoes a horrendous labour, giving birth to twins. It’s not that these women don’t know about the violence and horror of life; it is that in this novel there is no bonding between men and women over such knowledge, as there is between men and men.
Another novel that is notoriously indifferent to the experience of women and finds its concept of existential horror in an exclusively homosocial world is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the second nineteenth-century Ur-text for First Person. There’s an obvious clue to this literary lineage in the homophonous names of Heidl and Hyde, and there’s a clear parallel between Stevenson’s conception of a monstrous alter ego and Flanagan’s characterisation of Heidl. Both men are unnaturally created and come into being in an instant, Hyde through Dr Jekyll’s chemistry experiments and Heidl through an outrageous act of self-invention. Both are small and ugly men, Heidl a ‘hobgoblin’ and Hyde ‘like a monkey’. Most tellingly, Hyde and Heidl evoke similar sensations of repulsion and disgust in those that encounter them. About halfway through First Person Kif Kehlmann confesses,
I was finding it ever harder to be physically near Heidl. Everything about him revolted me, even the least offensive: the black-haired puffy fingers, his nose, his ears, the mouth that might swallow the moon. There was about him that intolerable sensuality you sometimes see in an animal.
The disgust Kif feels is not just physical, but also moral.
… the more I saw of him, the more I found every smile, every gesture full of falsity, and each day the more frightened of him I grew. I would drive home in the Nissan Skyline, grateful to have escaped that room and him, but I hadn’t really escaped anything, for as soon as I was at Sully’s place I’d get in the shower, turn the taps hard on, and once more run Sully’s boiler out of hot water, too ashamed to tell him that I was all that long time simply trying to wash Heidl off me.
Hyde produces a similar effect on everyone he encounters. One man says:
There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point.
Another says that there was ‘something seizing, surprising and revolting’ about Hyde and that his mere presence caused an ‘odd, subjective disturbance’ in those around him. The memory of seeing Hyde’s face leaves a third man suffering from ‘a nausea and distaste of life’.
In Stevenson’s novella only one character speaks and feels differently about Hyde – at least at first – and that is Dr Jekyll, the man of whose vices and appetites Hyde is the expression. When he looks at himself in the mirror after his first transformation into Hyde, Jekyll is aware of the ‘imprint of deformity and decay’ left on his body by the unleashing of his evil impulses. ‘And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself. It seemed natural and human.’ Hyde is the means for Jekyll to liberate every primitive or illicit impulse that he has previously suppressed in himself. When, in the person of Hyde, Jekyll commits murder, he is both terrified and elated – ‘at once glorying and trembling, my lust of evil gratified and stimulated, my love of life screwed to the topmost peg.’
In First Person, Flanagan transposes the dynamic between Jekyll and Hyde onto the relationship between ghostwriter and subject. Kif says that Heidl corrupts him, that he takes possession of his soul, and this is why ‘If I were a better writer I’d reimagine this whole story as a vampire novel. But I am just reporting what happened.’ Here is an instance of narratorial misdirection – first, because it’s a disclaimer of fictionality (a manoeuvre that allows a narrator to make his story seem more truthful by identifying the kind of fiction he could have written but eschewed in favour of unvarnished reportage) and secondly because the reference to ‘a vampire novel’ is a red herring. First Person owes much more to Jekyll and Hyde than to Dracula.
In his more honest moments Kif admits that his growing feelings of ‘loyalty, sympathy, and complicity’ towards Heidl became complicated by his also feeling ‘resentful … and jealous and covetous’ of Heidl’s capacity to sin with abandon: ‘though Heidl filled me with an ever-greater dread, I wanted in. I can’t explain it. With every passing day, more and more, I wanted fucking in.’ Heidl opens the door to ‘the possibility of unknown freedoms – of a life differently lived.’ But this glimpse of freedom is only, Kif realises, an invitation to give rein to something already present in himself. The most frightening emotion that Heidl evokes in him is the emotion of ‘recognition’. ‘This, too,’ as Jekyll says of Hyde, ‘was myself.’
Flanagan does interesting things in this novel with ideas of ghost, guest, host, parasite and colony – interconnected tropes of exploitation and possession that apply to both the art of writing and the art of crime. Kif calls Heidl ‘the monstrous parasite’ who seems always to be able to ‘colonise one last identity’ for the purposes of material or psychological gain. Yet it’s the writer who emerges as ‘a man without morals, who could pretend to any feeling that was necessary in order to gull others.’ The writer and his subject, the ghost and the guest, the parasite and the host, the coloniser and the colonised, slide into and inhabit each other. It’s like Alien, Kif says.
There’s a lot of anger in this book, and a lot of sadness. The anger is about the falsity of contemporary society, about our political and economic systems, about the publishing industry and the fate of books, and about the way Tasmanians are regarded – Kif and Ray claim – as less than other Australian citizens. The sadness is about living in ‘a world where not one heart knew how to touch another’. In Heart of Darkness, Marlow asserts his right to ‘a choice of nightmares’. The nightmare Flanagan delineates in First Person isn’t mine. Other readers must choose whether to embrace or refuse it.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1899 (New York: Norton, 1988).
Percy Lubbock, The Craft of Fiction (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1921).
Robert Louis Stevenson, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886 (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1987).