Skios: A Novel

  • Michael Frayn
  • Metropolitan Books
  • 257 pp.
  • June 25, 2012

Comical choreography and clever language mark this farcical novel of mistaken identity that occurs on an idyllic Greek island.

Reviewed by Gerry Hogan

Clever is the word that comes to mind when reading Michael Frayn’s farcical new novel, Skios. Indeed, a tactical cleverness is the well-spring of successful farce, from the Greeks to Shakespeare to the Marx Brothers, for good farce depends on a writer’s ability to stage-manage broad (but not entirely buffoonish) characters swept along by improbable (but not completely impossible) events that build in hilarious ways to potentially dire (though never tragic) ends.

In my lifetime, there’s been no better example of this tactical cleverness than Frayn’s wildly popular 1982 play “Noises Off,” a very physical comedy about a troupe of hopeless actors staging an awful melodrama. The success of “Noises Off” was a tribute to Frayn’s skill in blending the traditional elements of stage farce — wild coincidence, mistaken identity or misplaced loyalty, pratfalls and slapstick — with much sharp word play and a slyly sophisticated satiric take on theater life and popular culture.

“Noises Off” was a masterpiece of comic timing, infused with a manic energy that made its 101 minutes pass like a horse race and sent the audience home smiling and contented.  That Skios demonstrates many of Frayn’s talents, including the gift of comic invention, the urbane use of language and a knack for narrative propulsion, and yet amounts to a less-than-satisfying work, says much about the differences between stage and page.

Frayn’s novel is set on the small and outwardly idyllic isle of Skios, a place where “fishermen’s cottages along the waterfront and the caiques rocking at anchor on the dazzle of the sea were as blinding white and as heavenly blue as the Greek flag stirring lethargically on the flagpost.” But Skios is not as calm as the sea and sky might suggest, for it is the home of the Fred Toppler Foundation, a “think tank” in the very broadest sense of the term, founded by an American with more money than learning or gravitas, for the ostensible purpose of exposing rich Americans to European intellectual culture.

Nikki Hook is personal assistant (and aspiring foundation director) to Mrs. Fred Toppler, aging widow and former exotic dancer.  Nikki’s career depends on the success of Dr. Norman Wilfred, her chosen speaker for the Fred Toppler Lecture, the highlight of the annual house party, an event that is about to begin as the novel commences. Meanwhile, Dr. Wilfred, a paunchy 50-something Englishman and the world’s greatest expert on the scientific organization of science (an ersatz field with which Frayn has much satiric fun), is on a flight bound for Skios, inwardly lamenting that although an eminent authority, he is a victim of “debilitating comfort and flattery.” As a result, he has had trouble getting laid. On the same flight is Oliver Fox, 30-something handsome rascal, with a “dishmop” of blond hair and big, seductive brown eyes, authority on nothing, with troubles because of how often and easily he gets laid.

And wouldn’t you know it, upon their arrival at the Skios airport, there is a comedy of errors: identical bags switched, misunderstood statements resulting in mistaken identities, characters racing on or off stage so as to encounter or just miss other characters. The glib playboy is taken for the eminent authority, while the eminent authority is whisked way to the playboy’s love nest. Nikki falls for the supposed eminent authority, but then realizes her mistake and attempts to …  In short, farce ensues.

Skios is another reminder that Frayn is a great comic choreographer. As in his previous novel, Headlong, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999 and the only other Frayn novel I’ve read, he is masterful at putting the pieces in place and then moving them around in a beautiful but orderly swirl. In Skios, the chapters are rarely more than five pages long, involve just one or two characters and move the action frantically forward while keeping the chaos under control. Frantic yet controlled: few comic writers know how to strike that narrative balance. There is never a moment when the reader is given the chance to be bored, as Frayn darts from Nikki to Oliver to Dr. Wilfred and back again.

Nevertheless, before things were even a hundred pages along, I began to wish that Frayn had slowed down a bit, taken some time to flesh out his characters, to make them more than the embodiment of two or three physical or professional characteristics. Put differently, I began to hope for something beyond pure farce, for something more like the artful character development I remembered from Headlong, which was, superficially, a comic tale of art historians trying to authenticate a masterpiece, but also involved the characters’ internal investigations.

In Skios, a book that might have been more accurately named “Headlong” than Headlong, Frayn sidesteps these loftier novelistic concerns, and all the while, Nikki remains prim, blonde and ambitious; Oliver stays impulsive, blond and larky; Dr. Wilfred is still fat and imperious. At the end, the reader is left wondering whether anyone or anything is changed, and the author seems disinterested in offering any clues. To be fair, Frayn has succeeded at concocting an entertaining farce, one that held my attention and provoked considerable laughter for at least 101 minutes. But it takes me — slow and demanding reader that I am — more time than that to finish a novel, and I want more for my effort.

Gerry Hogan works as a lawyer for the Department of Justice and lives in Columbia, Md.

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