This Michael Frayn comedy of errors caught my eye on the Man Booker Prize 2012 longlist when I spotted it’s ‘humour’ tag. As man’s humour and Man Booker are strange bedfellows my cocked eyebrow signalled that I have a peek. The book is a comedic gem.
It is a fabrication about mistaken identity between a crotchety academic and an impulsive playboy set on a Greek island. There’s a girl caught in the middle, mistaking the wrong chap for the keynote speaker at the annual gathering of the foundation she works for. The foundation itself is an institution of comical proportions whose members consist of vague philanthropists unsure of what’s happening but determined to be seen to be supporting whatever it is. Among them are the glitterati, stereotyped blondes, Russian gangsters and deluded rich people. As you meet the cast you realise that, like the two main protagonists, most of them are really pretending to be something that they’re not. This element of the book seems suspiciously like a social condemnation of those supporters of charitable institutions who belong only to be seen to do so.
I use the word ‘cast’ here because it fits. The book has been criticised for reading like a play rather than a novel. Michael Frayn is an established playwright for stage (he has a Tony Award) with a string of successful screenplays. Admittedly some parts of Skios could well be called farcical. It carries clarification in its full title, ‘Skios – A Novel’ in apparent foreshadowing of said controversy. I chose wisely not to argue with the author about his choice of title, accepting that there are parts of it that seem overly theatrical but concede that such treatment could be a device to promote absurdity and speed through the multiple scenes at a frequency that could not possibly be matched on a stage. It would appear that the Man Booker people thought along the same lines (though I must admit that we are not always of matching opinions).
The plot moves with the pace of an Onassis heiress in a Jimmy Chou store and to the author’s credit, the clever wit and humour keeps up with it all the way. Other players appear; former girlfriends of the playboy and an hilarious twin brother double-act of fraternal taxi drivers who further complicate the central mistaken identities with their own. There’s even a case of mistaken identity between the sheets – I kid you not; that reminds me of the scene with the goat but no…not here. During the foundation’s annual dinner party I could swear that I spotted Basil Fawlty goose-stepping by with his elevated, overladen tray tottering above a dowager’s mauve perm. Oh, and there’s a suitcase that wanders the island in search of its owner. Each of the protagonists cross each other’s paths throughout the story and all end up gravitating towards the final scene with a focal intent that seems prophetic of a ground-zero paroxysm.
Any story that causes me to laugh out loud is a winner in my book.