The ghostwriter's nightmare scenario

Ghostwriter characters don't make it into fiction very often, but when they do they always seem to find themselves in jeopardy.

In the 2010 Roman Polanski film The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays a ghostwriter working for a former British prime minister. In the end he knows too much and ... it doesn't end well.

In the Netflix series House of Cards, Paul Sparks plays ghostwriter Thomas Yates who, after struggling to extract a decent memoir out of the president, fails to keep his professional distance, you might say. It takes a while – three seasons in fact – but it doesn't end well for him either.

And now we have Australian writer Richard Flanagan's latest novel, First Person, in which the narrator is a ghostwriter hired to author the memoir of a notorious conman. The story was inspired by Flanagan's own experience, very early in his career, of ghostwriting the autobiography of fraudster John Friedrich) in 1991.

Given Flanagan's protagonist Kif Kehlmann is telling the story himself, I don't think it's giving too much to say that this particular ghostwriter survives this particular tale. For me, at least, that was a relief. Though he goes close to not doing so.

First Person is not a comfortable read – which is not a criticism. It was probably intended that way. Kif's narration has a resigned feel to it throughout. You don't get the sense that he so much as smiles the whole way through, and he has some disturbing traits as a person which make him hard to like. In fact I don't think any of the characters is particularly likeable.

The book doesn't have the atmospheric feel of much of Flanagan's other work. While Flanagan does portray the dreariness of the main setting – light-industrial Port Melbourne and an off-the-shelf modern office – very well, it's simply not as nice a place for us to be as, say, the Tasmanian bush portrayed in The Sound of One Hand Clapping, my favourite of Flanagan's works.

The story moves fairly slowly, and ultimately there isn't a whole lot that happens. That's fine for the most part, except that it goes on a bit long. The last act in particular is excessively drawn out.

However, First Person gives us a convincing insight into the publishing world and into the process of ghostwriting. As a ghostwriter myself, I could relate strongly to the challenges Kif faced in extracting his subject's story (though thankfully I've never had an assignment quite as challenging as this one). His portraits of people in publishing are caricatures to some extent, but they also feel real and they had me laughing out loud at times.

So despite the challenges of this book I won't forget it in a hurry, and I would still recommend it to lovers of Australian literature – and to other ghostwriters. I just look forward to the day when I can read the story of a ghostwriter who lives happily ever after.

First Person by Richard Flanagan is published by Random House Australia

Photo by Simone Hutsch on Unsplash

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