Skios, the new book from Michael Frayn (Noises Off, Spies, The Tin Men) is a fast-moving comic farce set on a private Grecian island, the eponymous Skios. Frayn pokes fun at pseudo-intellectuals and con artists and ambition as he charts the disintegration of the annual lecture at the Fred Toppler Foundation, an institute with a vague humanitarian purpose that may really exist as a front for shadier activities.
We are introduced to Dr. Norman Wilfred, the paunchy yet distinguished professor of “scientometrics” who is supposed to deliver the annual Fred Toppler Lecture; Nikki Hook, the ambitious top assistant at the Foundation, who has invited Wilfred to Skios; and Oliver Fox, a charming trickster, who decides on the spur of the moment after a glance at Nikki’s blue eyes, to become the name on the sign that she holds up at the airport, “Dr. Norman Wilfred.” Oliver is aided in his deception by a series of mistaken identifications, some similar-looking suitcases, and the very human quality of making assumptions, which he has no desire to correct. He also likes living on the edge, in constant risk of discovery.
“He had made himself Dr. Wilfred by his own individual act of will. He remained Dr. Wilfred by the will of others.”
Frayn hints at the less-than-intellectual aspirations of the various people who have come from all over the world via yacht, jet, or other means to attend the lecture, but the prose and action moves so quickly that the reader is never quite sure about the secondary cast. This is all fine for the first two-thirds of the novel, where the antics of the two Wilfreds is the heart of the story, but by the end, when things are happening so fast and so furiously, it becomes clear that fleshing out some of the other cast might have made Skios an even better read.
Cast is a very appropriate word to use, rather than character, in the case of Skios. Most of the people populating the novel are described by just a few physical attributes. Nikki is discreetly blonde and cool, Wilfred is slightly balding with a tendency to take himself too seriously, and Oliver has a dishmop of blonde hair that he is continuously brushing back from his soft brown eyes. The cinematic prose practically demands that the reader mentally cast a movie based on the book. Although British in Skios, it’s hard not to picture American actor Owen Wilson as Oliver. It’s unclear if this is Frayn’s intention, or just a result of his blending theater, film, and the written word for so many years.
Skios hurtles along to its Fawlty Towers-like conclusion at a breakneck pace. It is a fun summer read, but may leave one wishing for more than just a few good jokes and great pacing.