Thursday, July 5, 2012
Skios, by Michael Frayn
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 2012
(ARC - many thanks to the publisher and my apologies for taking so long to read it)
-read in June-
Talk about a light read! While I wouldn't use the term "sidesplittingly funny" to describe this book, it is fun in schticky, farcical kind of way, populated with oddball characters who are the heart and soul of this novel, and set on the Greek island of Skios.
The basic setup for the novel is as follows: The Fred Toppler Foundation was conceived of as a "center of wisdom and civilization, a place of beauty where the finest minds in the English-speaking world can mix with the leaders of English-speaking society." Prior to the annual Fred Toppler lecture, the residents have been spending time at the "Great European House Party," taking seminars about Minoan cooking, learning traditional Macedonian dancing or Late Medieval flower arranging, followed by afternoons of swimming, "civilized conversation," and other venues for "spiritual refreshment." The speaker for this year's event is Dr. Norman Wilfred, who is set to enlighten everyone on "The Promise of Scientometrics." All of the logistical details are handled by Mrs. Toppler's PA Nikki, who as the novel opens, is heading out the door for the airport. For Nikki, the event absolutely must go off without a hitch -- she's got designs on moving up to a directorship and can't afford any screwups. Nikki arrives at the airport, picks up Dr. Wilfred and returns to the Foundation. But, uh-oh! The Dr. Wilfred she's picked up is not the real Dr. Wilfred at all, but Oliver Fox, a guy who has recently decided to take any opportunities when they are presented. When Nikki, holding a sign, sees Fox smiling at her she asks "Dr. Wilfred?" Oliver decides to be Dr. Wilfred. He smiles and says "I cannot tell a lie;" meanwhile, the real Dr. Wilfred has been dealing with a luggage mix up -- all of the information except his lecture notes are in his bag, and he can't seem to reach his PA. He gets into a taxi where the driver says to him "Phoksoliva?" ready to take Dr. Wilfred to a villa that was supposed to be a temporary love nest for Oliver Fox and a Georgie, a girl he had met in a bar, an arrangement Fox is already sorry he made. From there it's a crazy muddle, as the real Dr. Wilfred finds himself alone in the villa with Georgie, as Oliver Fox posing as the real Dr. Wilfred is winning friends and influencing people at the Foundation, and as things quickly go downhill on both fronts. But just when the reader is ready to let the whole farce run its logical course, there are still a few more surprises to be had.
There are some funny moments in this book that actually made me laugh out loud. There is the story of how Mrs. Toppler came to be Mrs. Toppler and came to Greece after her husband's death (she was formerly Bahama LaStarr, Vegas show dancer; before that she was Apricot del Rio); in another the real Dr. Wilfred, who while at the villa, thinks he's actually at the Foundation center and calls the main desk to try to get directions to the breakfast area and ends up finding only goats; and the scenes with the taxi driving brothers Stavros and Spiros. The characters are also quite funny in their own right -- not just the main players, but some of the people who have come to stay in Skios: Cedric and Rosamond Chailey who slip away when "anything so American" is being discussed; Chuck Friendly and his wife Mrs. Chuck Friendly, to name only a few. Then there's Dr. Wilfred himself, whose egotistical and academic exterior conceal silk underwear, a hidden mole fetish and healthy sexuality, among other things.
The fun of this book is not so much in the schticky kind of situations caused by the mix-up of identities, for which, I might add, you absolutely must suspend all disbelief for several reasons, most notably that it's highly dubious that Nikki wouldn't even know what her famous keynote speaker looks like. I much more enjoyed the characters, the interplay between them and the sheer implausible silliness of it all. Frayn's wonderful way with detail and description are also plusses, as is his take on in-crowds, reputation, and credulity.
Skios is funny, but then again, funny is in the eye of the beholder, so it's one of those books you have to experience for yourself. I'm not a huge reader of farcical kinds of stories, but the novel did produce a few hearty chuckles and a kind of fun tension wondering if "Phoksoliva" would ever make it up to the podium to deliver the Toppler Lecture. I'd say give it a try -- its humor, satire and wit make for an easy, light summer read.