Skios by Michael Frayn is a farce! No really. It’s an actual farce. I got a few pages into the book before I realized it was indeed a farce. Full of all the usual farcey elements: mistaken identity, one bewilderingly unbelievable scenario after another, and very little character development, Skios is a near perfect representation of of a genre that bugs the hell out of me. Typically, I would stop reading a book once it entered territory I know is not my cup of tea. However, I’ve made it a personal goal to try to read all of the titles on The Man Booker Prize longlist, so I persevered. I also want to note that when I first started blogging I said the following in a review of a book I enjoyed but many others trashed because of the genre:
However, I think it’s silly to criticize a book based on a writing style that one is predestined to dislike. I don’t enjoy action films, so I avoid watching them. I don’t go on rottentomatoes.com and write reviews that say things like Predator would be really great if it weren’t so violent. It’s an action movie. It’s supposed to be violent. (See original post here.)
Before reading the following review I want you to know I wholeheartedly appreciate that Michael Frayn’s is a talented author, and a man beloved by many for his novels and plays.
This review contains spoilers.
Skios starts out with Nikki Hook going to great measures to insure the speaker and distinguished guest for the Fred Toppler Foundation’s Great European House Party, Dr. Norman Wilfred is treated like a king from the time he gets off the airplane and into the waiting car headed for the island of Skios. The only problem is by some twist of fate Nikki ends up picking up Oliver Fox from the airport instead of Dr. Wilfred. How does this happen? Fox, dismayed that his travel partner is running behind schedule and because of a host of other cosmic signs that pop into his addled head decides on a lark to tell the quite beautiful Ms. Hook that he is Dr. Wilfred. Even though Nikki has seen Wilfred’s photo and Fox is much younger than Wilfred, she takes the sly Fox at his word. He is indeed Dr. Norman Wilfred. This begins a chain of events that lead to one misunderstanding after another. Like a line of dominoes falling in a zig zag there is potential for chaos at every juncture from this point in the novel on.
Dr. Wilfred arrives at the airport at the same time as Fox. His luggage is nowhere to be found as Oliver has taken it. So, he decides to get a taxi to the foundation villa. Only Wilfred can’t remember the name of the foundation and he ends up taking the taxi meant for Oliver’s original destination. Once Oliver’s date Georgie shows up at the villa earlier than expected what occurs is a series of events that would make Jack, Chrissy, and Mr. Furley proud. Georgie gets in bed with Wilfred thinking it’s Oliver. Wilfred’s a little excited that a mysterious woman climbed into bed with him. (Maybe he’ll get to put the three condoms in his pocket to use!) Georgie realizes it’s not Oliver, and quickly freaks out. She locks herself in the bathroom. Wilfred still thinks he’s at the Toppler Foundation villa and he’s trying to explain this to her. Georgie decides he must be crazy, because clearly this villa is not part of any foundation. Wilfred at first thinks Georgie is either a hooker provided by the foundation or crazy or both. I thought the maneuvering around of Georgie and Wilfred was quite funny in that Three’s Company way. (Have I ever mentioned my undying love for Jack Tripper?) The thing that bugged me about this whole section was the cab ride that got Wilfred to the villa. Wilfred was unable to get his assistant on the phone to find out the name or address of the foundation. However, it seems like he could have called the operator or found an airport information desk to get the information. But that’s part of my problem with farce. I have to build up my suspension of disbelief. I have to believe that this brilliant scientist is so befuddled he gets into a taxi clearly meant for someone else.
Meanwhile Oliver Fox is quite taken with living Dr. Wilfred’s life. His only concern seems to be when people will realize it’s Oliver Fox and not Wilfred. Fox is either famous for being a bit of a scallywag, or he is simply delusional. He really thinks people will eventually recognize him. Oliver’s dialogue as Dr. Wilfred embodies the purposeful absurdity of the farce genre. He speaks to the foundation guests in circular sentences and riddles with no end in sight, and the people listening to him are amazed. Oliver has one challenger throughout the weekend. Professor Ditmuss repeatedly tries to challenge Oliver/Dr. Wilfred’s theories, and Oliver manages to avoid or put him off at every turn. There is even an old classmate of Wilfred’s at the event, Cedric Chailey. Cedric knows that Wilfred is an imposter, but decides not to mention it. He does not want to make trouble. It is also implied in a roundabout way that Cedric could possibly be at the event with his mistress and not his wife. I say roundabout way because at that point as is typical with farce even the most straight forward exchange can seem nonsensical or unreliable to the reader.The reader is simply supposed to become ensconced in confusion. I have a really hard time doing this.
Between each of the two scenarios going on at the villa and at the foundation there is confusion everywhere and it all comes to a head on the night Dr. Wilfred is supposed to give his speech at the Fred Toppler Foundation event. All of the main characters eventually arrive at the event after much wrangling and many cab rides to and fro. (I really liked the cab driver characters, Spiros and Stavros. They provided much effective comic relief.)
The last scenes of the book seem to be sprinkled with some sort of Shakespearean fairy dust.. The reader is walked through a series of events that could have happened, and then walked again through what actually did end up occurring. The atmosphere is magical but with no mechanism for the magic. There is no King Oberon pulling the strings, only the author telling the reader what could have happened and what did happen. Skios by Michael Frayn (257 pages, published by Metropolitan Books) is an excellent example of farce up until the last chapters of the book. Then it falls apart.