Sunday, July 29, 2012

Identity Theft: Frayn’s Skios

Michael Frayn’s Skios is both fun and funny, an entertaining farce about mistaken identity at a Fred Toppler Foundation conference—“Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics”—for a bunch of schmoozing jetsetters and would-be intellectuals who gather on a fictional Greek island. Skios tells the story of two Dr. Norman Wilfreds and the silly havoc they wreak on themselves and the people around them.

The passport-proven Norman Wilfred is scheduled to lecture at the conference about the management of science… but ends up at a distant house on Skios instead of the lavish conference site after being mistaken for one Oliver Fox. The ersatz Norman Wilfred, whose real name is, yes, Oliver Fox, is coming to Skios for a fling but decides to become Dr. Wilfred when he sees a woman holding a Norman Wilfred sign at the airport and decides “that would have been a good name to have.” Fox-Wilfred also sees that Nikki Hook, the woman greeting him, “plainly wanted him to be Dr. Wilfred.” Fox-Wilfred isn’t one to disappoint.

There are many layers of humor lurking in Skios, from the repetition of identity-based gags—like Spiros and Stavros, brothers and taxi drivers, who think real-Wilfred must be “Phoksoliva,” which real-Wilfred thinks must be a Greek expression—to a receptionist answering the phone by saying “How my dreck your call?” And then there’s satire involving empty-headed conference attendees, who are all too eager to believe that Fox-Wilfred is real-Wilfred. Even if they’ve met him in the past.

Identity in Skios is all about belief and labels, that people fit the labels they present; this plays nicely on contemporary thought that something will happen if you believe in it enough. Perhaps what’s most telling on Skios is that the person at the conference who most pesters Fox-Wilfred, asking him real scientific questions, is shunted aside over and over because he’s inconvenient: maintaining the illusion of Fox-Wilfred is more comfortable. Of course the illusion is also entertaining and suspenseful for the reader, as when Fox-Wilfred comes up with an absurd and messy magician-like act with coffee cups in an attempt to evade answering the questions.

There is plenty more illusion, fake, ersatz, and faux in Skios, from Nikki’s blond hair to a Russian woman’s apparent lack of English: Mrs. Toppler, the former Vegas dancer who heads the foundation, tells Fox-Wilfred to entertain one Mrs. Skorbatova at dinner by just talking, telling him, “A mouth opening and shutting. That’s all most people here want, when you come right down to it. Plus one of your nice smiles.”

Frayn ends the novel with far more of a semiotic bang than I’d expected. He sets it off with a careless action (involving sweets) that spurs an utterance—an English word that has multiple meanings—that prompts an inappropriate reaction. This misunderstanding has much, much worse consequences than the Fox-Wilfred matter but Frayn still manages to end the book on a humorous note, with Mrs. Toppler thanking her conference guests. Everything is only what you say it is.

Skios, by the way, was long-listed for the Booker Prize last week. Skios is listed on the Macmillan Web site here, with a brief excerpt.

Up Next: Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man. Then G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen.

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of Skios from the publisher, Henry Holt. Thank you!

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