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Skios Paperback – 4 Apr 2013
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The weak point, then, comes with the introduction of one of the principal characters, Oliver Fox. Calling this guy feckless is like calling Eeyore a pessimist. He buys donkeys in the park and expects to keep them in his girlfriend’s flat. He routinely pretends to be someone else. He treats women like trophies. He steals other people’s taxis just out of boredom. In his early twenties? That might explain it, but in fact he's in his late thirties. This guy has so many screws loose he does seem to be an authentic psychopath.
I say it’s a weak link because we can’t help noticing that the author has deliberately created the perfect character to keep the plates spinning, and that lessens the sense of a rollercoaster universe that farce depends upon. If Oliver Fox had a reason to take someone else’s identity, just to begin with – or even if it were a case blind chance, as in Being There – then we wouldn’t be reminded of the contrivance every few pages. I found that I kept wondering if there was some secret yet to be revealed, that Fox would turn out to be an escaped loony or an actor suffering a nervous breakdown. The fact that we’re told early on that he’s well-known doesn’t help. It would have been easier to swallow if Frayn had gone for a Thorne Smith approach and had Fox as a dug-up Dolos perpetrating his wiles on modern mortals. (He might just as well have been.)
**SPOILER COMING UP**
That aside, it’s a fun ride with Frayn’s usual sparkling prose. Imagine Mamma Mia only with a good story. It’s quite pleasant to have the time to scrutinize all the cogs of a farce like this – on stage you’d be kept breathless by the pace of it. Surprisingly, given how meticulously Frayn constructs the plot (and all farce belongs to a Cartesian universe, after all), he hands out the biggest comeuppance to the guy who believes in predictability. The emperor in the new clothes is beau of the ball. But that’s where the wave function of farce collapses back to the world of reality, I guess.
Quibbles: I’m not sure that Dr Wilfred’s PA doesn’t change name between chapter one and chapter three, though they could just be two different characters. And Frayn shouldn’t have felt the need to explain his “skiers” joke at the end; it’s obvious the first time.
I normally hate farces - the misunderstandings, narrowly missed resolutions and all-round chaos. But this one is different. It begins with Nikki, cool and collected assistant to the Fred Toppler Foundation's owner, Mrs Fred Toppler, and aspiring director of said foundation. For the first time she has been allowed to pick a speaker for the year's event, and she begins to hope that perhaps this year instead of a curmudgeonly, self-important old fart, she might get a handsome intellectual who'll sweep her off her feet. The chosen speaker is exactly that curmudgeonly, self-important fart, but for reasons related to the fateful pronunciation 'euphoxoliver' on his arrival in Skios, not all goes to plan for Norman Wilfred. At the same time, Oliver Fox, a whirlwind of carefree disruption, lands on Skios for a romantic getaway with a lover, and he quite fancies an adventure... as Dr Wilfred.
Needless to say, wires get crossed and the whole plot explodes outwards from there, Big Bang style. It's a wildly entertaining read and Frayn comes up with some brilliant ways to convolute the plot ever further, though never losing the reader entirely.
I won't say any more because the joy of this book is not knowing exactly what mistakes are about to be made, but rest assured that they are all funny. If I have one criticism, though, it's that the climax isn't quite as deft as the build-up, and the sense that something big is going to happen is only half-fulfilled. Some of the well set-up reveals are thrown away towards the end. Perhaps the downside of writing such a convoluted series of events is that it's hard even for the author to wrap them up nicely.
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