Kingsley Amis was shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize (with “Ending Up” in 1974, “Jake’s Thing” in 1978 and finally winning the prize with “The Old Devils” in 1986), Frayn has been on the shortlist before with “Headlong” back in 1999. So a “masterful” exponent of farce is shortlisted more often than a new kid on the block? I suppose Frayn has further opportunity to make the list in future years.
“Skios” is farce, pure and simple farce. Mix in some scientific chaos theory mumbo jumbo but it reads very much like a stiff upper lip British comic farce from the 1970’s. This year we also had “The Yips” by Nicola Barker, a comic farce with intertwined characters set for the internet generation, and personally I found that novel had a lot more depth and pathos than Frayn’s latest offering.
Put simply we are on the Greek Island of Skios, and according to this novel the original home of Athena the Greek virgin Goddess of reason, intelligent activity, arts and literature. Of course she must be hidden as we have four intertwined (although they don’t know it) main characters Dr Norman Wilfred who has been hired by the gorgeous and ambitious Nikki to give the Annual Fred Toppler Foundation Lecture on “Innovation and Governance; the Promise of Scientometrics”, and Oliver Fox a playboy self-confidant womaniser who has arranged to meet a lady who he had previously met for a grand total of 5 minutes, Georgie, for a romantic rendezvous on the island of Skios.
Now things start to get a little complicated, Georgie is away on this interlude without telling her current partner Patrick, Oliver is using a villa, to meet Georgie, which is owned by friends of his ex-girlfriend (Annuka who has only recently thrown him out and whose luggage he is using). Georgie used to go to school with Nikki and she’s using their friendship as a cover for her “getaway”, Nikki is plotting to win control of the Foundation with her coup speaker and poor Dr Wilfred is just too busy on his mobile phone to realise someone has taken his luggage. Oliver pretends he is Norman, Norman ends up in a villa not the foundation, Georgie thinks Nikki is in Switzerland (“skiers” not “Skios”) and ends up in the same bed as Norman who she thinks is Oliver, Nikki thinks Oliver is Dr Norman Wilfred and is charmed, Oliver thinks he is Norman and on it goes.
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 was later. The immediate priority was not to disappoint her now. In Any case, there was some truth in what he had said. He was not good at telling lies, and he never did. Not if he could manage without.
We also have Greek corrupt leaders, Russian magnates with clueless girlfriends, sheiks with impossibly long names, money laundering, about 30 episodes with mobile phones, drunk and tired journalists, inept security guards, twin? brother taxi drivers and more. As a multi award winning playwright you can see this novel being firmly put upon a stage with people quickly moving in and out, ribald laughter from the stalls and oohhss and ahhhsss as we feel embarrassed at each and every wrong turn. But does it work as a novel? [SPOLIER ALERT] The one redeeming feature for myself was the chapter just short of the ending where the numerous plausible endings are put down, the explanation of seemingly random events and the causation of other events – the butterfly in Brazil flapping it’s wings causing weather events does rate a mention!!!!
All up a quick read, an enjoyable read but something I’d rather watch on a stage (and on a night where I’ve switched off a bit). So farce features twice on this year’s long list, so we must be in dark times if we are reduced to improbable, coincidental and quite simply absurd behaviour to take us away from the reality.