Skios by Michael Frayn (2012) Metropolitan Books (2012) 257 pp
As a fan of Michael Frayn, I was thrilled to see he had a new novel out this year. Headlong (my review here) is one of my favorite books, and I had big hopes I would enjoy Skios even half as much. My hopes were bolstered when Skios was placed on this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. It’s seemingly a strange choice for the Booker list, where comedy doesn’t usually show up, but thank goodness it’s on there (even if I share the opinion of others that it falls below Frayn’s usual standards). After all, here we have a master writer having fun, which is infinitely more to my taste than a poor writer being serious (a type of book I think has much more propensity to get Booker attention).
Skios is named after a fictional Greek island where all of the hilarious, completely implausible action takes place. This island is the site of the Fred Toppler Foundation, and it’s June, time for the annual Fred Toppler Lecture. This year, Nikki Hood, Mrs. Fred Toppler’s PA (Fred Toppler being deceased, the Foundation is now run by his widow, a former exotic dancer), has invited distinguished academic Dr. Norman Wilfred to speak; his address is provocatively titled “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.” This will be delivered to a lively crowd, including “the second richest couple in the state of Rhode Island” and a distinguished authorities, such as one on “comparative underdevelopment.” (I have to say that I have a lot of respect for academics, but the hilarity of the positions, like the one at a school that, if it existed, would be in my neck of the woods — the Department of Applied Dynamics at the University of West Idaho — and the book and lecture titles are spot on).
Nikki is responsible for making Dr. Wilfred feel welcome and charmed, and she has some hopes that maybe Dr. Wilfred will be someone special, after all, “Some of [the lecturers] could absorb amazing amounts of charm and flattery — and still not show the benefit.” Besides hoping against hope that Dr. Wilfred will be some handsome man who might charm her back, she hopes the lecture will go better this year than last; she has a promotion in her sights. That’s not to be, sadly, and Frayn gets the ball rolling the wrong direction right at the start.
When Dr. Wilfred disembarks his plane at Skios, he finds an email from his assistant that includes a clip of an article critical of Wilfred from some no-body in Manitoba. He shouldn’t deign to respond to something so worthless from someone so meaningless. But a brilliant retaliatory take-down comes to his head, and he chuckles to himself as he pounds away with his thumbs on his phone to send his response. Meanwhile, the younger, more attractive Oliver Fox has also disembarked the plane. He’s come to Skios to meet Georgie, a married woman he met for only a couple of hours, at a villa where he could run into a woman he’s dating, Anuka. Why does he do this to himself? But then Oliver spies Nikki Hood, holding her sign for Dr. Norman Wilfred. Why can’t he be Dr. Norman Wilfred? Well, no reason he can think of, so he goes for it. In the process, he also grabs the real Dr. Wilfred’s bag that just happens to look just like his own. Off he goes, hoping to get a little action with Nikki. And she has been hoping for some as well. Why worry about the future?
She plainly wanted him to be Dr. Wilfred, he could see. She would probably be disappointed later, of course, when he turned out not to have been Dr. Wilfred after all. But later wast later. The immediate priority was not to disappoint her now.
You can see how this is all a bit silly. Could this really happen today? Even so, Nikki knew what Dr. Wilfred actually looked like, so how could Oliver Fox dupe her, let alone all of those honored attendees? Obviously, plausibility is not the point in this farce, but Frayn does allow Fox to wonder: “You were who you said you were, even if they knew you weren’t!” And after all, this is Greece: the gods rejected the real Dr. Norman Wilfred; this is all fate.
I laughed out loud many times, particularly when Georgie finds her way to Skios and into the villa, now occupied by a snoring real Dr. Wilfred, and ends up terrified, locking herself in the bathroom. And Frayn does inject into this a bit of contemplation on identity in this modern age, even if it is mostly lip-service. No, the intellectual content we might expect from Frayn is as irrelevant as plausibility here.
But Frayn still shows he’s a supreme writer. His humor comes out in a case of mastered close narration, taking advantage of dramatic irony as his characters meander through the absurdity that has struck their lives. I admit to being unsatisfied with the ending, which, even for a book like this, felt forced and contrived and, consequently, a bit humorless, but this is still a fine read, and a book I’d recommend reading before the leaves start to fall, making us all think serious thoughts again.