Michael Frayn knows the elements of a mistaken-identity farce. He summoned one of the most rip-roaring festivals of confusion to the stage in his play Noises Off; his novel Headlong wove a farce around the discovery of a long-lost Brueghel painting. Frayn’s intellectual prowess was brought to the stage in Copenhagen, a compelling drama about the scientific pursuits of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr.
Skios, Frayn’s latest novel, has at its heart the keynote address acclaimed scientist Dr. Norman Wilfred is due to deliver at an influential research center on the fictional Greek island of Skios. But a series of missteps sparked by longing and the island’s terrible taxicab system cause someone else—a ne’er-do-well opportunist pursuing one relationship while fleeing another—to almost inadvertently assume Dr. Wilfred’s guise, thus finding himself the cynosure of the research center’s posh, pretentious attendees.
It’s unimaginable, of course, that our plugged-in era could allow smartphone-clutching travelers even a moment of such disorientation, but Frayn works the mechanics of the story like a master puppeteer. His island isn’t friendly to cell phones and even less friendly to the wrong kind of charging adapter. A language barrier persists, giving us the term phoksoliva en route, and there’s the reliable human trait of seeing in someone only what you ardently wish to see. And, in a straight steal from the movie What’s Up, Doc? and who knows how many earlier door-slammers, there’s the matter of supposedly unique suitcases that look too much alike.
All of which rolls into a breathtaking comedy of things-gone-wrong in an island paradise that provokes great sexual longings among its principals, longings kept aloft as they’re amusingly thwarted.
You see, efficient Nikki Hook, who selected Dr. Wilfred as guest lecturer, can’t mask her loneliness with ambition, so when the scientist turns out to be tow-headedly handsome, she can’t help but hope . . . even as Nikki’s friend, Georgie Evers, heads to Skios for a rendezvous with someone about whom her boyfriend Patrick, off on a sailing cruise, knows nothing. When that someone fails to show and she finds herself stuck in a luxury resort with a disoriented old scientist clutching a speech he’s supposed to deliver somewhere . . . while disgruntled Annuka Vos, who knows her boyfriend is screwing around on her, makes her way to Skios and the luxury resort where she finds . . . but you don’t need me to tell you these things.
Suffice to know that a well-crafted sense of inevitability hangs over the proceedings, fitting for the setting, even as Athena, goddess of wisdom, watches and perhaps influences the goings-on before making an eleventh-hour appearance.
Frayn’s narrative voice, shifting among settings and characters, tends to remain at enough of a remove from what’s being described to simplify the telling of this complicated tale. Although I miss the kind of narrative-voice merriment found in the stories of P.G. Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe, Frayn’s tale-teller slyly emerges as a character in (I’m going to suggest) her own right, when the principals manage to collect on the grounds of the research center for the long-awaited speech.
We’re already aware that all is not as it should be at the center, that there’s odd activity involving shady Russians and earth-moving gear. But the payoff sidesteps all that’s expected—even to the point of reminding us what we expect—and takes a slightly disappointing twist that nevertheless fits plausibly into the world of current events.
Lacking a narrative-voice wiseguy, Skios is a comedy of events, of relentlessly frustrated expectations and virtuoso plotline strings-pulling. Unlike Sharpe and Wodehouse, who tell the same story again and again, Frayn’s novels rarely replicate. What you do get is superb craftsmanship and a hilarious story that rewards an awareness of the mythology that lies beneath. By the end of it, I was convinced that the island of Skios surely exists—and that I’ve been there when my own life turned upside-down.