MICHAEL FRAYN’S NOVEL SKIOS was recommended to me by the Algorithmic Gods of Amazon. I got to it late, because I was deeply involved in planning the very type of conference that Frayn so mercilessly lampoons in this novel. Skios has all the elements I’ve come to expect from Frayn: lots of mistaken identities, quick moving, cross-cutting plot lines that interweave with a turn of the page, and the more subtle but equally rewarding themes of identity: what is genuine, what play-acting, how do people perceive us, and why?
One critic snarkily remarked that mistaken identity is utterly unbelievable in the age of Google; anyone with half a brain could pull up 100 images of the person. But this misses the point. As You Like It or Twelfth Night or any mistaken identity plot depends upon the suspension of belief. It doesn’t matter if the audience or readers see through the conventions. They are supposed to. They want to. It’s the characters themselves that don’t recognize what is in front of their eyes, who need the self-delusion.
The book takes place on the fictional Greek Island of Skios, (mistakenly overheard as “skiers” by a bimbo-esque character who assumes her girlfriend is skiing somewhere in Switzerland) where the Fred Toppler foundation is hosting its annual conference for the very bored and very rich. The featured speaker is the very middle-aged and very important Dr. Norman Wilford, met at the airport not by Mrs. Fred Toppler, an ex-stripper who married very, very well, but by her assistant, the very efficient and rather pretty (in that English sort of way) Nikki — “Discreetly tanned, discreetly blond, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice.” Nikki knows exactly what to expect of this year’s speaker, Dr. Wilford, having organized the keynote lecturer for the conference for years. But when a blond, floppy haired, well-built man smiles at her and looks a moment too long at the sign she’s holding saying Dr. Norman Wilford, her instincts fly out the window and self-delusions begins. Because she wants it to. Because she needs it to. She asks, “Dr. Wilford?” When Oliver, the definitive Euro-trash playboy with way too many girlfriends and way too much time on his hands, replies graciously, “I cannot tell a lie,” the farce begins.
While Oliver enjoys all the perks of being Dr. Norman Wilford, including Nikki, the real Dr. Norman is whisked off to the rented house where Oliver is supposed to be staying with his girlfriend-du-jour, Georgie. Needless to say, everyone ends up in bed with exactly the people they are not supposed to be sleeping with, including Mrs. Fred Toppler, who is caught hiding the falafel with the powerful and hairy Greek magnet Mr. Papadopoulou. Georgie spends a great deal of time barricaded in the bathroom. Nikki can’t believe, upon finding and examining the false Dr. Wilford’s passport, that “Norman Wilford” is not spelled “Oliver Fox.” Spiros and Stavos, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of taxi-driving brothers, keep demanding their 35 Euros, while the woman who recently threw Oliver out of her home in London shows up on Skios and is continuously mistaken for the cleaning lady.
Frayn’s most famous play, Noises Off, was lauded by Frank Rich as the funniest play he’d ever seen, and his audacious novel Headlong, about the possible discovery of a long lost Bruegle, is a dazzling comedy. Skios’s mess, too, is set up to end in a magnificent silent movie tour de farce. But Frayn, when everyone is in the same room at the same time, waiting for the same event, and only a butterfly’s wings have to beat in a distant rain forest for the entire powder keg to explode, stops the action to tell us what might have happened, who would do what to whom and the inevitable consequences. What might have happened. What actually happens is entirely different, a much more violent conclusion to this circus.
As self-delusional Oliver Fox thinks about giving up his playboy life to becoming a doctor, a neurosurgeon no less, as Dr. Wilford muses upon giving up his entire career to live carefree with Georgie (and the two exquisite moles on her backside), I kept thinking about the lines from The Comedy of Errors:
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
I also kept hearing soul-searching refrain from A Chorus Line’s:
Who am I anyway?
Am I my resume?
It’s a tribute to Frayn’s genius that he can make a reader leap from from Shakespeare to Marvin Hamlisch within a wink of an eye.