‘First and foremost a farce’ – Skios by Michael Frayn

Farce is something of a dirty word. We all of us, probably, have memories of bad sitcoms in which the vicar decides to pay a visit at exactly the same moment some Nicholas Lyndhurst type decides to give the dog its worming tablets anally and – oh, look, his trousers have fallen down. Yawn. Undoubtedly, though, when it’s done well (as it is by Michael Frayn in his play Noises Off), it is very entertaining – both technically (farce is all about getting characters to certain narrative marks) and artistically. Skios, Frayn’s eleventh novel, is first and foremost a farce, a comedy of errors, albeit a farce that puts right what Jonathan Coe got so wrong in his last novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.

We find ourselves on Skios, a Greek island that acts as home to the Fred Toppler Foundation, an organisation that was ‘a complete world, a miniature model of the European civilisation that it existed to promote’, on the eve of the annual Fred Toppler Lecture. This year’s speaker is Dr Norman Wilfred, a ‘world-famous authority on the scientific organisation of science’ (and, as a character, not a million miles away from Solar’s Michael Beard) who arrives on a flight at the same time as Oliver Fox, a chancing philanderer on his way to an illicit rendezvous with a lady he only met for a five minute chat. Nikki Hook, an ambitious thirty something with her eye on a hopefully upcoming promotion, is set to meet Dr Wilfred but accidentally intercepts Oliver Fox instead – who is quick to accept his part as an international authority on something or other. What follows is at times hilarious, excruciating, unbelievable and cheeky. Oliver Fox becomes Dr Norman Wilfred and Dr Norman Wilfred becomes Oliver Fox after a mix-up with a Greek taxi driver. Add in two of Oliver’s previous lovers, dodgy goings on behind the scenes of the Foundation and the long shadow cast by a European economy teetering on the brink of financial collapse and you’re all set for a rude, intelligent comedy.

You could argue that some of the characters are cyphers for the action and, indeed, that some of the action stretches credulity (would Dr Norman leave his passport behind so far into the book, having experienced all he had experienced?) – just as you could argue that the book benefits from being read swiftly, so that you don’t stop to pick at the various threads that hold the narrative together. If you’re so inclined. All I can say is that I was entertained. I found myself turning the pages quickly. I found myself reading through split fingers at times. I also found myself wanting to warmly shake Michael Frayn’s hand and say, ‘Well done, old chap.’ Cracking read. At the almost close of proceedings, Frayn lifts the curtain to map out what might have happened – revealing the authorial hand guiding the action (as Coe did, less successfully). It’s a deft and clever touch.

‘If they had been living in a story, of course, they might have guessed that someone somewhere had the rest of the book in his hands, and that what was just about to happen was already there in the printed pages, fixed, unalterable, solidly existent.’

Out of nowhere, seemingly, there’s a shootout and a body count. It’s the kind of nicely acid touch that might have saved Dan Rhodes’ recent This is Life.  If you’ve always regarded farce as something you don’t have to dally with and you’re willing to take a gentle recommendation from us, Skios could well be the book to change your mind.

Any Cop?: Taken together, Skios is a fine read, a pleasurable read, clever, witty. Fans of Frayn’s Booker-nominated Headlong will find much to enjoy here.

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