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Collected stories

I'm Laura Kroetsch, Director of Adelaide Writers' Week. Come and journey with me through the marvellous world of literature. If you feel inspired, get involved and leave a comment at the bottom of the stories!

Watermen

31 August 2017

For days now I have been watching the floods in Houston caused by the seemingly endless tropical storm that is Harvey. I am watching men in boats, in kayaks and in one picture a man on a paddleboard ferrying people across the water to safety. I see a helicopter collect a man and his dog in a metal bed and lift them to safety. I see women and children waist deep in water waiting, some with enormous patience. Others are angry, confused and disappointed by the system, the rain, the loss.

I have also been thinking about Richard Flanagan, a writer I associate with water, and men, and danger. Years ago I remember seeing a photograph of Flanagan in the Tasmanian wilderness, I remember him as siting a lake, or possibly in a boat, at the base of a magnificent forest. I think that the image is from the New York Times and when I look I find an article, but not the image.

When I think about Flanagan I think about men in the landscape – be it men at the bottom of the sea, men in the river of mud and disease, men in a river drowning, and of Richard himself dangerously attempting to cross the Bass Sea.

Richard Flanagan - First Person

With this new novel, First Person, the water is there, including foolhardy boys lost on a river in New Guinea and that failed fateful crossing of the Bass Straight. And while this new novel and Death of a River Guide share the idea of drowning, in First Person, the narrator lives, but the fear and doubt linger.

First Person is not a novel about men in nature; it is about that potentially much more dangerous place, that heady place where men and their ambitions collide, in this case in a room where a ghost-writer is trying to pry a story out of a con-man weeks before he will be sent to jail. It is based on a true story, one that saw a young broke Flanagan accept $10,000 to write the memoir of the notorious John Friedrich.

First Person is not a memoir, Flanagan has no time of the cult of confession, and instead the novel is provoked by a memory and is completely fictional. The story is told by Kip Kehlman, a man desperate to be a ‘real’ writer, the con artist is Ziggy Heidl, and the in-between is Kip’s old friend Ray, a bruiser of man, one who has been diminished by Ziggy’s endless stories.

Kip is a character whose ache to write and whose failure to do so is by turns knowingly funny and poignantly sad. As for Kip, writing has so far been as Ray suggests, ‘so many words’ and as Kip knows, not nearly enough structure. But on he goes, no matter that his wife is heavily pregnant and they are utterly broke. Even when the offer of $10 grand arrives it is a wonderfully reluctant Kip who accidentally puts aside his dignity as an artist and leaves Tasmania for Melbourne to become a ghost in the twilight worlds of both publishing and crime.

In a conference room, the reluctant criminal and his bewildered ghost begin, or at least Kip tries to persuade Ziggy to give up his story. But Ziggy has no real interest in the project, he is by turns amused and annoyed by Kip’s efforts, and as the clock ticks, Kip worries and Ziggy makes other business. With only six weeks to complete the book and no story, Kip begins to fear he is being corrupted by the ‘charismatic’ con.

What I love about his novel is the writing, that thing we once called muscular prose, coupled with a knowingness about human frailty that is both refreshing and quite sad. Flanagan is all too aware of our solipsistic age and as you follow Kip into the darkness the humour gives way to something much darker.

Flanagan has always been a fearless explorer of men’s dreams, fears and ambitions, but I’m not sure he has ever written as poignantly about the desire to be a writer. Kip’s lamentations about his inability to structure a novel are so painfully accurate that I wish I didn’t want to insist they were made part of the creative writing curriculum – …It wasn’t that I wanted to be writer. It was that I knew I was a writer. It wasn’t the least of my vanities, but it was the most breathtaking.

Ultimately Kip’s battle is with the truth, of what is the truth and how easily it can be corrupted. His is a question of our modern age, it is about a world bent by lies and ambition and the endless insistent pleadings of the self. And at the same time the novel is great fun to read. It is hugely satisfying and smart and generous. It is completely unlike The Narrow Road to the Deep North and further proof that Flanagan is one of our greats.

It will be a real delight to host him here in Adelaide on October 16th at Elder Hall; I’ll be in the chair opposite him enjoying listening to him as much as you will. I hope to see you there.

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