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.
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.
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Excerpted from "First Person"
Copyright © 2018 Richard Flanagan.
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Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation about First Person, the mesmerizing new novel from Richard Flanagan, the Man Booker Prize–winning author of The Narrow Road to the Deep North.
1. Explore the ways in which First Person satirizes the publishing industry. How would you describe the atmosphere at STP Publishing? To what extent does Kif Kehlmann view his work on Siegfried Heidl’s memoir as a symptom of the industry’s decline? How does the novel’s epigraph comment on this theme?
2. What is toxoplasmosis? Why do you think Heidl is so fascinated by it?
3. Who is Ray? How do he and Kif know each other? Why does he advise Kif not to tell Heidl anything about himself? How does his relationship with Heidl alter the course of his life? How would you characterize Ray’s attitude in the final conversation he and Kif have?
4. What do we learn about Heidl’s crimes? What remains opaque? Why might Flanagan have chosen not to reveal all of the details?
5. Examine the connection between deception, truth, and trust as it is depicted in the novel. Is there such thing as absolute truth? To what extent is truth defined by belief? How does Heidl exploit the trusting nature of others?
6. Describe the effect that Heidl has on those around him. How does he draw them into his orbit? What happens to people once they become close to him? Consider, as you answer this question, his relationships with Kif, Ray, and Pia Carnevale.
7. Who is Brett Garrett? Who is Eric Knowles? What were their connections to Heidl? What clues does Flanagan offer us about their fates?
8. Describe Heidl’s worldview. How does he understand goodness, evil, and morality? What motivates him? What reasons does he give for wanting to end his life?
9. Explore the theme of memory as it is depicted in the novel. How does memory operate? Are memories ever reliable? What purpose do memories serve?
10. Who is Tomas Tebbe? How would you describe his philosophy? Why do you think his words resonate so deeply with Heidl?
11. Describe the final slide Pia and Kif view on the carousel. What is its significance? Why do Pia and Kif decide to ignore it? What does the photo come to represent to Kif?
12. Examine Kif’s relationship with Suzy. What first draws him to her? How does his work with Heidl—and his role in his death—affect their relationship?
13. Explore the theme of success as it is depicted in the novel. What constitutes success and what are its markers? What is the cost of success? Does Kif ever achieve success? Consider, as you answer this question, Kif’s work with Heidl, his own unpublished novel, and his work in the television industry.
14. Examine Kif’s career in television. How does he get his big break? How does he characterize the culture of the industry? Does he find happiness working in television? Why or why not?
15. What is Dying to Know, and why do you think Kif calls it “the closest [he’s] ever come to autobiography” (page 321)?
16. Consider the novel’s title. To whom—or what—do you think it refers?
17. How do you interpret the conclusion of the novel? Is this the ending you expected? What does it suggest about Kif’s reliability as a narrator?