Having written what may well be the finest and certainly the funniest theatrical farce of the last half of the 20th Century, Noises Off, Michael Frayne has now gone and done the same for the novel. Skios may not have the slamming doors, but even without them it is one absolutely hilarious farce. Certainly its basic premise is farfetched, if not downright unbelievable. But this is farce, farfetched and unbelievable are the rules of the game. Earnest truth to life is neither expected not rewarded. Earnest is not important. Certainly its conclusion is a bit clunky, but any problem with the resolution is more than compensated by the laughter along the way.
Unlike, his 2000 novel Headlong which had readers plowing through page after page of academic and pseudo-academic analysis of the paintings of Bruegel and the history of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century primarily for intellectual chuckles, Skios makes few demands on the reader, other than a willingness to suspend disbelief, and offers real belly laughs in return. Besides I don’t know that the plot and characters of Headlong are any less farfetched or any more believable, nor its conclusion any less clunky, and it was a finalist for the Booker Prize. Skios may be a frothy concoction in comparison, but it works.
Set at a lavish conference of the Fred Topler Foundation on the Greek island of Skios, the novel’s plot is built around mistaken identity, misunderstandings and blatant chicanery, all the stuff off traditional farce. Dr. Norman Wilfred, a paunchy, balding middle aged expert on the management of science is scheduled to deliver the featured lecture. Niki, the pretty young personal assistant to the Foundation’s sponsor is to pick him up at the airport, but when a handsome rather uninhibited young man, Oliver Fox, sees her, and notes the sign she is holding up, he decides to let her believe that he is the good doctor. Off they go to the conference, leaving the real Dr. Wilfred at the airport. Things get more complicated with lost luggage, the arrival of a couple of Fox’s lady friends, one expected, one not, language problems, and cell phone failures.
Add to this a gaggle of minor characters like a Greek and a Russian crime boss, Fred Topler’s widow an Vegas show girl, a couple of local taxi drivers with little English and thick accents, and a variety of rich conference attendees and there’s always something new to catch your attention. They may be caricatures and stereotypes, but they flesh out the narrative, and their very limitations give the more developed characters a greater sense of reality.
Fox is a roguish charmer, and his disingenuous style captivates nearly everyone at the conference, while the real Wilfred gets mistakenly sent to Fox’s original destination. Hijinks ensue when the first of Fox’s girlfriends arrives later and mistakes the sleeping Wilfred for Fox in the dark. The intertwining stories only become more and more complicated as the through the night and into the next day, and if events seem contrived, that’s because they are. Let’s face it, if you are bothered by contrivance and coincidence, you probably don’t want to be reading farce in the first place.
This is not to say there aren’t serious ideas at play in the novel. Wilfred, the scientist, looks at the world as rationally and logically ordered, his ideas and actions the result of a coherent set of causes. Fox sees a world where there is neither logic nor order, where all action is random. The best laid plans are just as likely to fall apart as no plans at all. Wilfred is careful about everything he does. He carries his lecture with him and he has a special red tag for his luggage so they won’t get lost, but he doesn’t get to deliver his speech and his luggage is taken accidently by Fox. Fox, on the other hand, does things on the spur of the moment with little thought about consequences, and he manages quite well. He gets away with it.
Even when you get to the end of the novel, an omniscient narrator steps in and explains what should have happened if the novel were mirroring a cause and effect universe. Fox will be “forced to realize, and the overwhelming probability is that it will now operate just as Newton, Einstein and the real Dr. Norman Wilfred would wish. Each cause, he will almost certainly find it instructive to note, trail an effect at its heels like an obedient dog, each effect gratefully acknowledges a cause as its legitimate master.” But in the event, it doesn’t happen that way at all. Events it turns out result from “a triviality, a passing thought in someone’s head, a velleity that comes out of nowhere and has no imaginable significance or place in any self-respecting causal chain.” Just as the novel begins as the result of an unimaginable random event, it ends the same way.