A review of Skios, by Michael Frayn
@@@ (3 out of 5)
You may have heard of Michael Frayn without remembering his name. The successful British playwright and novelist is best known for the stage plays Noises Off, a frequently produced farce of mistaken identities, and Copenhagen, which portrays a meeting in 1941 between two of the giants of 20th Century physics, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, at a time when Heisenberg was thought to be working on an atomic bomb for the Nazi regime.
In Skios, Frayn develops two intersecting stories based on the premise that one protagonist — a philandering nutcase who lives by impulse alone — inhabits the identity of the other, an internationally renowned author and lecturer on the subject of the scientific management of science. The expert is scheduled to deliver a lecture on a Greek island, Skios, to an exclusive audience assembled by a foundation dedicated to the preservation of the highest aspirations of European culture. Need I say that monumental complications ensue both for the expert and for the imposter, not to mention the foundation, its staff, and its guests? Might I add that, by the end of this little book, the body count numbers more than a dozen — and that no reader is likely to miss any of the deceased?
Skios is much closer in character to Noises Off than to Frayn’s more thoughtful work but is much less successful. Frayn’s humor comes through loud and clear — the story is frequently hilarious — but the utter absurdity of the plot unravels at the end, where Frayn lays out not one but two possible endings for the book. (One of them, perhaps the author’s original conclusion, is presented as conjectural. The other is presented as “real.”)
I loved Noises Off. I laughed until I was hoarse. And as a child I read Frayn’s first novel, The Tin Men, and loved that, too. Though I enjoyed Skios enough to finish it, I was disappointed.