The real question here is: how does one follow up such a magnificent, life-changing, world-changing novel as The Narrow Road to the Deep North?
The previous gift to us from Richard Flanagan’s formidable mind was so many things it was almost overwhelming – an interrogation of his own father’s lived trauma on the Burma Railway, a vast national history lesson that effortlessly traversed decades, a book that clenched its fists so viscerally in regard to masculinity and the futility of war that the world sat up and took notice, and within heady months a somewhat startled, humble Flanagan found himself standing in front of a glowing Man Booker judging panel holding the top prize.
It is important in the case of First Person – Flanagan’s first shot over the parapet since the worldwide literary community hailed him as a genius in 2014 – to acknowledge the creative soul-searching we can only imagine must have followed Narrow Road’s pervasive success.
In the music industry they refer to the difficult follow-up after a smash hit as “second album syndrome”, more often than not encapsulating a stunned indie group’s response to sudden and fleeting fame, and almost inevitably struggling to carry the weight of expectation.
Many bands in this position end up making second records about what it is to be famous – how lonely life is on the road, how nobody understands fame and adulation. They deliver a record about the process of making music rather than one that exists as a slice of observational art, and it’s often regarded in their discography as a mild disappointment.
First Person is far from Flanagan’s actual “second album”, though – he’s a writer of considerable repute and catalogue, having been solidly plugging away at the Australian market and achieving levels of critical success (Gould’s Book of Fish) among the more tepid misfires (The Unknown Terrorist) for many years.
This is, however, the book that follows The Book, and it suffers badly for it.
Flanagan, despite being a writer comfortable in his own skin, comfortable with his own pen and use of language – so comfortable, in fact, in his sense of self that he’s happy to denounce governments and place himself in the centre of national discourse as an environmental activist – has written a novel about writing.
It’s a delicate tiptoe between fact and fiction, based somewhat loosely – how loosely is part of the author’s deliberate dance – on Flanagan’s own experience in 1991 writing the memoir of “Australia’s worst conman” John Friedrich.
Codename Iago was intended as an examination of Friedrich’s numerous fraud crimes as the chief of the National Safety Council of Australia, but the subject’s consistent mistruths and inability to share with Flanagan any genuine history of his life – not to mention Friedrich’s eventual suicide prior to the book’s publication – meant that the end result was something about which The Daily Review said: “Full of paranoid invention and blatant contradiction, Codename Iago is without doubt one of the most unreliable memoirs ever to appear in print.”
This frustration of Flanagan’s to squeeze a drop of honesty from an infuriating subject all those years ago is still palpable, and at the heart of this new novel it seems he remains monumentally pissed off with his dead muse. Which is fine – an angry Flanagan on the warpath for emotional revenge is a great kickstart to any creative project – except this project turns out to be a mostly uneven and dissatisfying ride.
First Person’s most pressing issue is that it takes at least 80 pages to get into the story. The flabby opening section, involving the book’s protagonist, Kif, simply repeating the exact same story points – he’s not sure whether he should write this book, he doesn’t trust the subject, he’s lost faith in his own abilities as a writer – could be condensed to a chapter. Flanagan paces the pages, bemoaning the death of the publishing industry, asking what it is to write and why writers make the choices they do, without taking the reader on any particularly sharp narrative journey or hooking them into the story to come. The kindest thing that can be said about the entire first quarter of the novel is that it is deeply boring.
Do readers need to bring an understanding of Flanagan’s “real life” struggles with Friedrich in 1991 in order to deepen their experience with First Person? Such background knowledge certainly adds context and weight to the work. But should a reader need to come to a novel equipped with a cheat sheet to enable them to enjoy it? There was a breathtaking poignancy upon discovering Narrow Road’s intention as a love letter to Flanagan’s father, but the beauty of that novel was that it existed independently of this revelation – it was a stunningly crafted epic that needed no further context. Without tipping a wink to Codename Iago, First Person is left as a somewhat rambling, repetitive, rudderless collection of thoughts.
Moments of Flanagan’s dagger-sharp genius still stab through the murk, in writing so delicious and muttered and patently his own: “We covered the opening abyss and our own eyes with rice-paper words: love, mostly. Family, often. Those sorts of words. The lies that blind, you could say. And yet, the words were as true as they were false.” But it’s not enough to wallpaper over the yawning dearth of story and structure, nor the frustrating skim-stone descriptions of characters who seem to pop in and out but take us nowhere, including the hapless Kif himself.
Flanagan had to follow up Narrow Road with something, and he must have nearly gone out of his mind writing it. He remains a gift to this country and one hopes that now that he has the “difficult second album” out of his system he’ll be given the peace and space to return to his better instincts and produce a work more in keeping with his talent. KR
Knopf, 480pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "Richard Flanagan, First Person". Subscribe here.