Faber & Faber, 224pp, £15.99
Michael Frayn’s new novel is an attempt, not exactly doomed from the start though botched in the execution, to borrow devices associated with one narrative form and put them to work in another. The setting is a sun-kissed retreat devoted to the promotion of civilised values but teetering on the brink of chaos. The Fred Toppler Foundation has a dead figurehead – the one-time major shareholder of TipToppler Beauty Products; a living figurehead, Toppler’s glamorous, much younger widow (formerly known as the dancer Bahama LeStarr and Apricot del Rio); and a reclusive, paranoid director. In the absence of leadership, whether living, or competent, or sane, it falls to Nikki Hook, Mrs Toppler’s PA, to organise the annual Great European House Party and its climactic event, the Fred Toppler Lecture.
The chaos of stage farce is replicated all right; what is missing is a sense of how easily, how invisibly, such things can occur. The central mishap turns on Nikki, known for her diligence, driving to Skios Airport to pick up the latest lecturer, an expert on scientometrics, without any way of identifying him, and returning with the wrong man.
Oliver Fox is a playboy tired of the lifestyle (“Why do I do this kind of thing?”) who resolves to train as a doctor at just the moment Nikki appears in his sights at Arrivals waving a name-card. Being Oliver Fox is “destroying his life”, so he decides to becomes Dr Norman Wilfred instead.
Dr Wilfred is no less fed up with his existence (“Why does one do it?”) and is happy to find himself ensconced at the villa where Oliver was due to meet Georgie, his latest catch. Where Nikki is in the dark about her impostor, Georgie knows full well that Dr Wilfred isn’t Oliver, but she still needs someone to apply her suntan lotion. Needless to say, the stud wings it as a nerd better than the other way around. The scenes with Oliver at the Toppler Foundation and Dr Wilfred at the villa are founded on the idea that anyone can imitate academic jargon, whereas convincing sweet-talk is a rare gift indeed.
Frayn thickens the plot quite considerably, as is to be expected, but without his usual rigour. Characters come across as obstinate rather than short-sighted, and the whole island appears to be suffering a bout of forgetfulness, affecting place names and directions in particular. The internet exists in the novel, but the characters refrain from using it when doing so would complicate events for their creator (that is, make matters more straightforward). Dim-witted female characters are a legitimate comedy resource in farce, but the stupidity here is too extreme. At one point, Georgie mistakes another of Oliver’s girlfriends for a foreign cleaner: “The woman had cleared out even the great muddle of creams and lotions that Georgie had left around the washbasin. They were all in the pool.”
It isn’t just that the narrative wheels are visible, it’s that they are visible in the moment of being greased. Georgie and Nikki are old schoolfriends – the party-going airhead and the goody-two-shoes – so Frayn goes out of his way to conceal their whereabouts from one another. Georgie is under the impression that Nikki works not on Skios but with “skiers”, but at the precise moment she reveals her confusion over the phone (“since you’re in Switzerland”) Nikki is “distracted”. When, during another phone call 120 pages on, Georgie finally refers to her location, Nikki “didn’t hear”.
It’s possible to imagine these near-misses being livelier on stage – in a double-centred scene, perhaps – but the effect here is exasperating in the wrong way. Fiction, even when it “shows”, is still bound to a form of telling (verbal description) and a consecutive form at that. It is hardly surprising that farce, so dependent on visual humour and simultaneous action, developed as a genre of the theatre and remains one. The stage directions of Noises Off would hardly be expected to leave you crying with laughter, and Skios is a book of stage directions. Stage directions with a thesis tacked on. The common ground between farce and philosophy is territory that Frayn has made his own, principally by treating farce not as a potential vehicle for philosophy, but as a branch of philosophy, with reflection on fate and human agency, appearance and reality built into its DNA. In his best work, farce is a machine that thinks. Here, however, he adopts the farce-as-vehicle approach. Not content with cultivating what the form organically and inevitably secretes, he arranges details to suit his themes (Wilfred is a near-anagram of “free will”), and towards the end there is even a section where he indulges in teacherly direct address. But the impulses aren’t integrated. Aristophanes passes the baton to Aristotle, who passes it back again. Meanwhile, the reader, tossed between traditions, choking on comic conceits, and still waiting for all those pennies to drop, assumes the role of a pantomime-goer stripped of all comforts: alone in the auditorium, and with nothing to yell at but the book.
Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer.