About a quarter of the way through Skios I began to wonder whether the Booker prize judges had enjoyed a few too many glasses of ouzo when they decided to include Michael Frayn’s latest novel in the 2012 longlist. How else to account for their choice of a comic novel about a set of characters caught up in a world that spirals into chaos.
It’s actually in the genre of a theatrical farce but instead of the revolving doors and beds that you get with the likes of a Feydeau farce, in Skios we have red leather suitcases that get muddled up and then keep reappearing but in the wrong places, girlfriends who get mistaken for cleaning ladies, and phone calls/text messages that keep going astray.
Skios is set on a Greek island where the great and the wealthy are gathered for the annual retreat of the Toppler Foundation, agog to hear this years guest lecturer Dr Norman Wilfred give his key note address on “Innovation and Governance: the Promise of Scientometrics”. It’s a lecture he has touted around the world and delivered many times. But arriving at Skios airport, he gets distracted at the baggage carousel, discovers his suitcase has been taken by someone else and instead of being taken by taxi to be feted in the Toppler foundation guest lodge, he finds himself in a villa surrounded by little more than goats. Meanwhile, his luggage and his identity is taken by Oliver Fox, another passenger on the same plane. Although significantly younger than Dr Wilfred, Oliver manages to charm all the Toppler guests into believing he really is the esteemed expert on Scientometrics. Meanwhile, up at the villa surrounded by goats, waits the girl he is supposed to be meeting for a romantic weekend.
It’s the kind of story line that worked well for Frayn in the 1980s with Noises Off, his stage play about a theatrical group rehearsing and then performing a sex-comedy. He used the same approach in his screenplay for the film Clockwork starring John Cleese as a hapless headmaster beset by a litany of accidents on his way to a headmasters’ conference.
Farce is harder to execute successfully on the page, than on the stage or in film. In Skios, Frayn shows why he is a master of this genre (which presumably is why he ended on the long list). The action is frenetic with a narrative focus that constantly switches from one set of characters and locations to another until it reaches an explosive ending.
Masterful? Yes in terms of handling a complicated plot line. Enjoyable? Marginally so – you could read this on a sun lounger with eyes half closed and enjoy the odd chuckle or too. But that’s about it. The problem for me was that the characters seldom rose above the level of painting-by-numbers figures – the plot device too often turned on that well-worn device of miscommunication between foreigners who can’t speak each others language. It’s difficult to care about what happens to any of these people.
Skios does have its moments of acutely observed behaviour and attitudes. The world of the academic lecture circuit is an easy target for comedy and ridicule (think David Lodge’s Small World). Frayn’s satire is evenly balanced between the academics and their audiences: Norman lectures to “the Something Centre. Or the Something Institute. The Something Something. The Something Something for the Something of Something.” to audiences who “had already had lectures on “the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.”
Such moments get lost however amidst the frantic rushing about that farce requires. Equally, there seems to be a theme about identity in which Frayn asks us to consider how we really know who we are – if our name and everything we supposedly represent can so easily be taken by another person, then what is left? But again, the comedy takes over and this question is never really explored.
Overall, this is a book that is well short of Frayn at his best. The kind of novel that is instantly forgettable once finished.
Why I read this book: it was selected for the Man Booker prize longlist in 2012