Michael Frayn’s new novel was inspired by a thought that will have crossed many a frequent flyer’s mind. What if, failing to spot your name among the placards held up by limo drivers in the arrivals hall, you pretended to be someone else?
Landing on Skios, the fictitious Greek island that provides the book’s title, floppy-haired scoundrel Oliver Fox does exactly that. Having already grabbed the wrong suitcase from the baggage carousel, his eye alights on blond, tan Nikki Hook holding her sign for Dr. Norman Wilfred.
Dr. Wilfred is the world’s leading expert on “scientometrics,” and Nikki has booked him to lecture at the Fred Toppler Foundation’s annual jamboree. She knows he’s middle-aged and probably has “a bald head and a lot of expensive meals built into him.” Yet with a dishy imposter striding toward her, she is blinded by her own wishful thinking.
So begins “Skios,” a rib-tickler that doubles as a philosophical head-scratcher, blending classic farce with musings on (mistaken) identity and fate. As Oliver marvels, “You were who you said you were, even if they knew you weren’t!”
The Toppler crowd isn’t so hard to dupe. The foundation’s figurehead is Mrs. Fred Toppler, a former Vegas showgirl who got to be the industrial-refuse mogul’s fourth wife for just six weeks before he died. Its fuzzy mission is to foster “civilized values,” though really it’s an excuse for pseudo-intellectual showboating.
Its patrons arrive by yacht or private jet, and include the second-richest man in Rhode Island and His Excellency Sheikh Abdul hilal bin-Taimour bin-Hamud bin-Ali al-Said, who inconveniently turns up with two extra wives.
“It’s so inspiring,” one attendee coos at Oliver, “to find someone who knows about science -- and who can explain it in a way that we can all understand! No figures, no equations, no funny business about extra dimensions or time going backwards!”
Instead, he’s using coffee cups to demonstrate -- well, he’s not quite sure what. Gradually, though, he begins to feel trapped by his own ruse.
Meanwhile, the real Dr. Wilfred ends up in the taxi meant for Oliver, which drops him off on the other side of the island at a villa Oliver’s estranged girlfriend has borrowed from friends. Assuming it belongs to the foundation, Dr. Wilfred settles in for an early night, which is when Oliver’s other squeeze turns up.
Frayn’s 11th novel is full of sublimely choreographed slapstick that at its best recalls his evergreen stage smash, “Noises Off.” Not only do people hop into the wrong beds, their mobile phones fizzle at crucial moments, herds of goats are mistaken for helpful locals, and all manner of linguistic misunderstandings arise.
“Phoksoliva!” Dr. Wilfred calls, having decided that his cab driver’s repeated “Fox, Oliver” must be a Greek salutation.
Egotism and hubris are rife, and Frayn has a knack for zeroing in on the details that bring his characters thudding down to earth -- Dr. Wilfred’s penchant for silk underpants, the “bloated dark thundercloud of naked stomach” belonging to a corrupt Greek businessman caught in flagrante.
As the hour of the lecture nears and subplots involving money laundering, smuggling and backstage power struggles simmer to a boil, Frayn creates the sense that the ancient gods may yet be keeping an eye on these foolish mortals.
Ideal summer reading, “Skios” sets the world mischievously to rights even as it whisks the reader so far from reality that not a single mention is made of economic meltdown on the mainland.
“Skios” is published by Faber in the U.K. and Metropolitan in the U.S. (257 pages, $25, 15.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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