Michael Frayn's Skios is a sexy little bedroom farce of a novel with amiable intellectual pretensions and a very erotic cover.
Like many a farce, Skios depends on mistaken identities. The intellectual gamesmanship here is that Frayn, in bringing about the mistake and keeping the deception going while assisting us to suspend our disbelief, explores the malleability of identity.
Who we are is pretty much an agreed upon fiction. We tell people who we think we are or who we want them to think we are and they, usually, take our word for it, without much question. But the pressure flows the other way too. To a great degree we are who other people think we are or want us to be, and once they have decided we are one sort of person, it’s hard to convince them we are another sort. In fact, they will stick with a fiction of their own devising and reject evidence that the fiction is a fiction and reality something quite different than they thought.
This can be terribly frustrating for someone determined to prove he is who he thinks he is. But it’s a golden opportunity for a con artist.
Frayn deftly and engagingly shows his characters' minds at work at this process of self-deception and this way dances us past the fact that his plot depends on its not occurring to any character to sit down at a computer or fire up a smart phone to do a quick Google search.
Oliver Fox, a feckless party boy and professional charmer with irresistible big brown eyes and adorably tousled blond hair, arrives on the Greek island of Skios for a tryst with Georgie, a woman he seduced in record time in a bar while her boyfriend was outside grabbing a smoke. They've arranged to spend a week at a borrowed villa, borrowed, as it happens, from Oliver’s recently ex-ed girlfriend, Annuka Vos, who ex-ed him for stabling a donkey in her apartment. But Georgie missed the flight, and Oliver, through a series of mishaps involving lost luggage, an outburst of academic ego, an aggressively helpful pair of twin brother taxi drivers neither of whom speaks English, and a warm, welcoming smile directed at the wrong person, Oliver finds himself delivered to the Fred Toppler Foundation on the eve of an annual Davos-like conference, where he's mistaken for the guest of honor, Dr Norman Wilfred, a renowned expert in the science of managing science.
Oliver, who seems to have sprung to life fully formed and in mid-misadventure at the bar in PG Wodehouse's Drones Club, and like Wodehouse's reflexive con artists and mischief-makers Psmith and Lord Ickenham can't resist the impulse to go with whatever flow he's blundered into especially if he senses that the flow is about to carry him and the people around him through the rapids and over a waterfall, realizes that's exactly the situation he's gotten himself into and acts decisively. Without thought or hesitation, he steps into the role fate has offered him and becomes Dr Wilfred.
He does this partly for fun, partly for the thrill, but mainly because he's smitten with Nikki Hook, the attractive young blonde who is running the conference.
It helps that Nikki has never met Wilfred. Although she has glanced at his photograph, the image left only a blurry imprint on her memory. What seals it for Oliver is that Nikki, expecting Wilfred to be what the real Wilfred is, seriously middle-aged, somber, somewhat pompous and self-important, and dull, let herself imagine how pleasant it would be if he turned out to surprise her by being someone very different, someone young, good looking, charming, and interested in her. Lo and behold…!
Something similar goes on with the other people at the conference. They accept that Oliver is Dr Wilfred because that's who they're expecting him to be and because Nikki tells them he's the man they've paid a lot of money and traveled great distances to hear lecture. But they believe it not because Oliver makes a plausible Wilfred but because he doesn't. He's much more charming and fun. He offers them a better time. He isn't what they thought they were coming to see. He's what they would have preferred Wilfred to be. And because they know the real Dr Wilfred is brilliant, every nonsensical but charming answer Oliver gives to their questions strikes them as brilliant. He's better than the real thing so they want him to be the real thing.
Oliver, good natured and obliging as he is, doesn’t want to disappoint them, or deny himself some fun.
He swung down the path with long strides. Nikki told him that he was expected to mingle. He was happy to oblige. He was Dr Norman Wilfred. Everyone would be pleases to see him. There might be people who had known him in the days when he was Oliver Fox, or who knew a rival claimant to the title of Dr Norman Wilfred. He didn't care. He would face them down. And when the pretender to his identity turned up, Oliver would face him down, too. This morning he felt himself to be so solidly established as Dr Norman Wilfred that no other Dr Norman Wilfred, however freighted with passports and credit cards, could take the title from him. Somewhere in this shining blue world Nikki was waiting. Together they would laugh over the misunderstandings of the night. And even when things were humiliatingly, flesh-crawlingly wrong, as sooner or later they inevitably would, he would laugh about it, and she would laugh with him.
The easy gradient ushered him eagerly on down into the picture. The world was bright, the world was downhill, the world was downhill again.
Of course the real Dr Wilfred is on the island, having arrived on the same plane as Oliver, and of course the same accidents that deliver Oliver to the conference deliver Wilfred to the villa where Oliver was headed, and of course Wilfred thinks he's at the Toppler’s guest quarters, though he can't understand why no one's there to welcome him, so of course he makes himself at home in what he takes to be his bedroom, and of course no sooner does he crawl into bed naked---his pajamas are in his suitcase which went with Oliver to the conference---and fall asleep than Oliver's tryst mate Georgie, having arrived on Skios on a later plane, shows up at the villa and, of course, thinking the man sleeping in her bed is Oliver, she slips out of her clothes and under the covers and sets to waking up “Oliver” gently at which point...
Screams, naked bodies running this way and that, doors slamming, cell phone calls being made and dropped so that incomplete and misleading information is passed along.
Wilfred and Georgie are trapped at the villa. Since neither knows where they are they have no idea how to get somewhere they'd rather be, which in Georgie's case is anywhere far away from Wilfred. And they can't call for help. Her cell phone battery has died and she forgot to pack an adapter so she cant recharge it, and his cell phone has drowned in the swimming pool.
At the Toppler, Oliver is having such a good time being Dr Wilfred that he starts to think he'll just continue in the new identity for the rest of his life. He even begins to think of himself as Dr Wilfred. The only problem he foresees is that Dr Wilfred is such a stable, respectable, and responsible sort, that in order to be him Oliver will have to be stable, respectable, and responsible and in the past he hasn't had much success being any of those things, mainly because he's gotten bored and when he's bored he has to liven things up usually by self destructing in one way or another.
At the villa, Dr Wilfred begins having trouble holding onto the idea that he is Dr Wilfred. His problem begins with the fact that the Dr Wilfred he’d assumed himself to be was a construct created to fill a public function. Dr Wilfred, famous intellectual, and that identity was based on and held together by audiences willing to be impressed, disciples willing to indulge his ego and vanities, underlings willing to take his orders, and intellectual rivals willing to challenge him and be slapped back into their proper place as his professional inferiors. None of those enablers are at the villa, and without them the construct begins to break down immediately. Dr Wilfred is left alone with his real self whom he discovers he doesn't like very much.
The real him is a boring, middle-aged academic who goes about pretending to be somebody important. Not an identity impressive in its own right, either to himself or to the likes of Georgie, whom Dr Wilfred can't help noticing because he keeps encountering her without her clothes on, is the sort of young woman he would very much like to impress.
But it dawns on him that Georgie doesn't know the real him. He's free to tell her he's whatever sort of him he chooses.
The possibility that he doesn't have to be himself is alluring. His problem is that he doesn't have what Oliver is granted upon arrival, other people willing to accept him as the new person he's decided to be. He's made it harder for himself by deciding to be someone Georgie would fall in love with, which means the first person he needs to convince is Georgie and she's already convinced he's a madman.
Ah, but Georgie, angry at herself for having fallen for Oliver who has, she thinks, deliberately abandoned her to make a fool of her, has begun to wonder if she’d be happier if she was a different type of person, someone mature and serious minded enough to attract a more stable and successful sort of man. Unfortunately, Oliver's ex-girlfriend, Annuka Vos, picks just this moment to show up at the villa and she knows at a glance exactly what sort of person Georgie is. A romantic rival who must be disposed of immediately.
For her part, Georgie thinks Annuka is the cleaning lady.
Meanwhile, back at the Toppler, gangsters are hiding in the bushes, an art theft is being plotted, spies are mingling among the guests, Nikki's rival for a promotion is scheming to humiliate her in front of their boss, Fred Toppler’s widow, a former Las Vegas showgirl whose life is textbook case study of the malleability of identity, one of the real Dr Wilfred’s intellectual rivals is determined to expose “Dr Wilfred”, not as Oliver Fox but as an intellectual fraud, a Russian mobster’s wife is apparently falling in love with Oliver, and Oliver is preparing to deliver Dr Wilfred's lecture. Or make a run for it.
Frayn is an accomplished playwright. Copenhagen won a passel of awards including the Tony for Best Play. But probably his most produced play is the backstage farce Noises Off. Lots of doors opening and closing in that one, with mistaken and assumed identities driving the plot every which way. And it’s easy to imagine Skios turned into a play like that. Easier still to imagine it as a movie.
But Frayn is also the author of ten previous novels, and Skios is very much a novel and not a play script with incredibly detailed stage directions or a waiting-to-be-adapted screenplay. Skios is well and even beautifully written. The imagery is cinematic but as in paintings in motion. And much of the action and the comedy is interior. The characters are types, stock characters that go back to the beginnings of comedy, but Frayn puts us inside their heads and has us seeing things through their eyes. The result isn’t deep psychological insight but more sympathy than is usually granted to the fools running in and out of the doors on stage in your average bedroom farce.
Still, Skios is a farce, and that brings me back to the cover, which is the most erotic part of the book, despite the considerable amount of time Georgie spends without her clothes. And that’s how it should be. That’s the convention. Bedroom farces, particularly British bedroom farces aren’t about people having sex. They’re about people not having sex. They are about thwarted desire.
All those doors opening up on invitations to the wrong bed or revealing characters arising from beds they should never have climbed into are just as often slamming shut on paths to the right beds or at any rate the desired ones.
Nobody gets what they want in a bedroom farce.
Well, almost nobody.
The denouement of Skios depends on Fox being a pun.
Previously in the Mannionville Daily Gazette Review of Books: Hemingway’s Boat: Portrait of a writer as an embodied man.