This week I read “Skios” by Michael Frayn (who was born in Mill Hill). It’s another book from now customary pile of books that tends to develop around this time of year. “Hawksmoor” and “The Marriage Plot” were on the same ever-increasing pile. “Skios” is something of a change from what I normally read: it’s a comedic farce about stolen identities set on the (fictional) titular Greek island. Amusingly, the wikipedia page for the novel currently reads “Praise for Skios was entirely misplaced”, probably thanks to some curmudgeon who doesn’t like the novel. Cue a ‘misplaced’ blog post about it, something that most people would consider to be business as usual for my blog.
A brief plot summary then. I will restrict spoilers to just those that are on the blurb. Oliver Fox is a complete cad and when he arrives in Skios to find that Georgie, his companion for the week, has been delayed by missing her flight, he assumes the identity of Dr Norman Wilfred. Dr Wilfred is in Skios to give a talk on ‘Scientometrics’ to a prestigious crowd of wealthy business owners and philanthropists at the fictitious Fred Toppler Foundation (it’s described in a way that is a sharp spoof of events like TED). Unfortunately the PR of the Fred Toppler Foundation, Nikki Hook, falls hook, line, and sinker (see what I did there?) for Oliver’s charms and so whisks him off to give “his” talk. All the while she’s lost in both romantic thoughts for Oliver and her desire to take over the running of the Foundation. The real Dr Norman Wilfred arrives a little later and through a comedy of errors ends up in an isolated villa with the wrong suitcase. Unfortunately Georgie also arrives at the very same villa and chaos ensues.
It’s very lightly written: the plot proceeds at a clip and you know pretty much guess how things are going to develop even as events evolve in their slapstick slalom. The characters are fairly perfunctory (especially the non-English ones) but you get a nice comparison between the ordered yet weary thoughts of Dr Wilfred and the guilty yet enthusiastic stream of consciousness of Oliver Fox. You also have Nikki Hook, who is determined to keep everything on the rails but, much like Dr Norman, she cannot see that the reality of her situation is completely different to how she perceives things. Georgie, like Oliver, has a flair for enduring chaotic situations; except, unlike Oliver, she has no idea how to extricate herself from them. Georgie’s situation is complicated further by the arrival of Oliver’s ‘second’ girlfriend Anuka: a wildly self-possessed woman who is frighteningly indignant about finding another woman in her friends’ villa, particularly one who then asks whether she is the cleaner!
At the heart of the novel is the notion of how people are often deceived because they like to deceive themselves (or are complicit in their own self-deception). In order for the world to proceed as Oliver perceives it, he has to deceive other people. Georgie is deceived by Oliver into thinking that time with him will be exciting but you are also privy to her thought processes and you know that she knows that she is kidding herself. Georgie is perhaps the only character in the whole novel who knows that she is being taken for a ride and yet she willingly submits to it anyway.
On the other hand, Nikki does more to persuade herself that Oliver is Norman than Oliver actually does: all Oliver does is say “I cannot tell a lie” when Nikki asks him whether he is Norman; so Nikki deceives herself because it fits in with her dream of having a charismatic academic sweep her off her feet. Norman is duped by his own self-importance and later by his burgeoning lust for Georgie, a woman who is totally inappropriate for him physically and mentally. Also, the guests of the Foundation are all fooled by Oliver because they are seduced by his persona of the enigmatic say-nothing-mean-everything academic that is prized the world over by those who are attracted to the glamour of science but not its processes or rigour or attendant ‘boredom’. There is a perverse joy for the reader in knowing that Oliver is able to convince these people precisely because he is the opposite of who Dr Norman Wilfred really is.
So while the book is very funny and not at all serious, something that you could dismiss as a whimsical farce that you could read on the beach: it also carries a deeper message about identity, self-perception and self-delusion. It just so happened that this was about the right time for me to read a novel like this, for reasons that I will explain in a later post. However in the past few years, in my job, there were times when I felt like Oliver Fox and there were times when I felt like Dr Norman Wilfred. There were also times when I felt like Nikki Hook. We all have that desire within us to insert ourselves as the hero of a particular story and often it drives us to be better than we would otherwise be. But we can also be subject to a lack of self-awareness that means we are not who we think we are, that we are not always carrying out the actions that we think the world sees.
All that aside though, this is a light-hearted and enjoyable novel that pokes fun at self-important academic people, the type that I once dreamed of being and now know that, thankfully, I will never be. I think you will enjoy it, especially if you are sitting on a beach somewhere and haven’t found goats where you were expecting the breakfast reception to be.