SKIOS, by Michael Frayn. Faber and Faber, 278pp, $36.99.

The farce has a long, distinguished literary history, from Aristophanes’ comedies to Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale to Fawlty Towers, Frazier, and ’Allo ’Allo. Its mixture of implausible coincidence, slapstick, convoluted plot, and mistaken identities is found in every culture, but seems particularly at home in Britain, where low-brow comedy, verbal sophistication and cross-dressing find their apotheosis in Shakespeare.

Michael Frayn is more of a Max Beerbohm than a Shakespeare, but he’s written a highly entertaining, breathless rush of a story, and all the classical ingredients of farce are here. The plot is as ingenious as it is ridiculous, revolving around a confusion of identity. Oliver Fox, a thirty-fiveish, dashing, British playboy type (all the characters are types – let those who find their novelistic pleasures in complex characterization beware) arrives on the Greek island of Skios aboard the same plane as Dr Norman Wilfrid, an authority on “the scientific organization of science” and jaded traveller on the lecture circuit. Norman has been booked to deliver the Toppler Foundation’s annual lecture, a coup for event organizer Nikki Hook. At the airport, Nikki mistakes Oliver for Norman; Oliver, noticing Nikki’s attractiveness, decides impulsively to play along. That he doesn’t know the first thing about the scientific organization of science doesn’t faze him in the least: Oliver doesn’t know the first thing about anything, except how to be charming. His charm, which is really Frayn’s, permeates the book, which is as sunlit as the mythical island setting.

Norman, of course, is in turn mistaken for Oliver, and is whisked away by the taxi-driver sent to fetch him to a villa on the far side of the island. For most of the novel, Oliver lives it up at the Toppler Foundation, making gnomic pronouncements that beguile the Foundation’s guests and allay suspicion, while the increasingly bewildered Norman has to deal with the abandoned angry girlfriend Oliver was supposed to meet. Meanwhile the hour of the lecture looms ever nearer, like Dixon’s in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, a novel that Skios in some ways resembles.

Oliver and Norman represent two poles: Oliver stands for impulsiveness, chance, opportunism; Norman for calculation, determinism, hard work. Michael Frayn as author is a kind of Lord of Misrule, presiding over a story where confusion trumps understanding, spontaneity upsets planning, and chaos usurps order. This is a grasshopper-and-the-ant tale where the grasshopper comes out on top. Sort of.

There are no lessons to be learned here – the object of any farce is first and last to make you laugh, and Skios makes you laugh, almost against your will. Frayn’s lightness and sureness of touch are everywhere evident in a novel that teeters but never falls.


Dominion-Post, The Press, Waikato Times, 30 June 2012


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Tim Tweets