Theo Tait 

Skios by Michael Frayn – review

It has charm and a few good jokes, but is it more than a farce? By Theo Tait
  
  

Along with writing the best-loved farce of recent theatrical history (Noises Off), weighing up the big questions of politics and quantum physics on the stage (Copenhagen), translating Chekhov from the Russian, composing a philosophical treatise (The Human Touch) and dashing off reams of amusing newspaper columns, Michael Frayn has somehow also found the time and the talent to be a very fine comic novelist.

Writing in the great, but currently neglected, tradition of Waugh, Wodehouse and Kingsley Amis, he is probably at his best in his 1967 Fleet Street novel Towards the End of the Morning, a very funny story of expenses fiddling, lunchtime boozing, and big ambitions leaking away over the galley proofs of the "Country Day By Day" column. But there are plenty of others too, from the entertaining 1999 art-historical romp Headlong, to his debut The Tin Men, a satire praised by Wodehouse himself, in which Swiftian mad scientists attempt to automate every aspect of British life, from bingo and altruism to football results and newspaper headlines (they discover a lexicon of "multipurpose monosyllables" which can be used in almost any combination to turn out "soothingly familiar yet calmingly incomprehensible" headlines: "Strike Threat Probe", "Test Row Leak", "Hate Plea Move").

In Towards the End of the Morning, his thwarted hack John Dyson is sent on a foreign trip, and finds himself mentally transformed: "The Final Departure lounge, sealed off from gross particular Britain by passport and customs barriers, was a bright nowhere land, sterilised of nationality and all the other ties and limitations of everyday life. Here Dyson felt like International Airport man – neat, sophisticated, compact; a wearer of lightweight suits and silky blue showercoats; moving over the surface of the earth like some freefloating spirit…."

Frayn's latest, Skios, is set entirely in this bright nowhere land – although inevitably the rules of comedy dictate that it should turn out to be a chamber of humiliations. Dr Norman Wilfred is a "genuine celebrity" in the world of science management; he has been summoned to the Fred Toppler Foundation on the Greek island of Skios, to give his classic lecture "Innovation and Governance: the Promise of Scientometrics". Like the protagonist of Ian McEwan's Solar, he lives in a world of weightless, globalised eminence. He's first seen in business class sipping champagne, reading over the lecture that he has given from Melbourne to Singapore to Hawaii, contemplating "another airport and another waiting car". Beyond those lies the Foundation – a dream of spotless white walls, cloudless blue skies and well-watered bougainvillaea, run like clockwork by Mrs Toppler's PA, the "discreetly tanned, discreetly blonde, discreetly effective" Nikki Hook.

Unfortunately, between him and his destination lies Oliver Fox, an impulsive chancer with "tousled blond hair, and soft smiling eyes", who is having serious doubts about his latest wheeze – a week in a borrowed villa with Georgie, a woman he has met once, in a bar. By chance he picks up Dr Wilfred's identical suitcase at the carousel, and when he sees Nikki waiting at arrivals with a sign saying "Dr Norman Wilfred", he decides to assume the academic's identity; he is soon charming the other guests with his clueless but wittily gnomic replies on scientometrics. Dr Wilfred, meanwhile, is duly whisked off by Oliver's pre-ordered taxi to a villa, where he goes to sleep and wakes up to find Georgie in his bed. Meanwhile, Oliver's angry girlfriend arrives on the island; a Greek shipping magnate and a Russian oligarch also become embroiled in the action.

Did I mention that Skios was a farce? Like Frayn's film Clockwise, it's a sort of stylised anxiety dream about a well-ordered world spinning into chaos. A lot of his comic novels have farcical plots, but the main focus and the driving force in the comedy are traditional novelistic ones: the characters and their amusing delusions; satirically observed social detail. Skios resembles a straight theatrical farce, all mistaken identities, embarrassing situations, amazing coincidences and mislaid clothing, building to a frenetic denouement. Frayn has described it as "an experiment to see you if you can write a farce as a novel without the communal response that helps farce to work in the theatre".

It is not, it has to be said, an entirely successful experiment. It lands Frayn with characters who are genre-bound and tinny: bland romantic leads supported by by-the-numbers comic foreigners. They seem to want actors to flesh them out, to gurn amusingly and perform pratfalls on their behalf. I suspect also that farce is best taken at one sitting: it needs concentrated attention to reach a hysterical pitch. Skios, though short, is too long for that. Though this is clearly not one of Frayn's best, it doesn't demand much, and it has a lot of incidental charm. There are quite a few good jokes, and the satire of the high-brow culture circuit is sharp: "They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of." Frayn waxes philosophical towards the finale, with dazzling detours into determinism and the "great gear chain of cause-and-effect". But by the time the book has ended – with a surprisingly high body count – it's not clear that Skios has transcended its origins.