Tasmanian novelist Flanagan follows up his Man Booker winner (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 2014, etc.) with a meditation on the shifting sands of identity and reality.
Fledgling writer Kif is hired in 1992 to crank out the memoirs of Ziggy Heidl, who defrauded investors of $700 million through an Australian shell company. They have six and a half weeks to produce a manuscript before Heidl’s trial—after which, says cynical Melbourne publisher Gene Paley, “He’ll be going to jail for a very, very long time.” Kif desperately needs the $10,000 fee: his wife, Suzy, is pregnant with twins, and they’re barely scraping by with odd jobs while he struggles to write his first novel. Apart from the proper names, the plot's premises track closely with Flanagan’s personal experience a quarter-century ago as ghostwriter for a notorious Australian con man. Their fictional elaboration, unfortunately, is problematic. Heidl is a cipher, and although Flanagan strains mightily to make this blankness the basis of his fraudulent success, with some philosophical riffs about how people faced with a lack of information will make up their own stories, it doesn’t ring true. Kif’s panicked fear that he is a failure as a writer is painfully plausible, as are his increasing marital problems as he takes out on Suzy his rage with Heidl for refusing to provide even the most minimal information about his past or his scams. But none of this connects persuasively with ominous warnings about Heidl’s ability to insert himself into other people’s psyches. The novel does improve in its closing chapters, with sharp vignettes about Kif’s subsequent career in Australian television and an acid assessment of the 1990s as “some universal collapse of values that was also the beginning of the acceptance of a new violence and a new injustice.” If only the much lengthier chapters inflating Heidl’s political and metaphysical significance were as apt and pointed.
Ambitious and stuffed with ideas that, regrettably, don’t translate into compelling fiction.