|Oct/Nov 2012 Reviews & Interviews|
Allen & Unwin. 2012. 278 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 28142 89.
Now he was Dr. Norman Wilfred, Oliver had discovered, once the security guard had unlocked his room and broken the padlock off his suitcase for him, he had an unexpected taste for pure silk underpants and pure silk pyjamas.
But Oliver was not Dr. Norman Wilfred, however much he had convinced himself and guests at the Fred Toppler Foundation House Party that he was. He was Oliver Fox, charming sociopath, master of deception, lies and seduction. And he was in the middle of the most unexpected, entertaining and complicated scam he had ever undertaken.
Michael Frayne, whose Noises Off is a theatrical masterpiece of farce, is an expert at weaving bizarre, intricate and unbelievable elements into a story in such a way that you can't predict what will happen or how the ensuing muddle can ever be sorted out. No-one expects farce to be totally believable, but it has to draw you into the chaotic world of the characters, and it has to be funny. Skios succeeds on both counts, and it does so delightfully. Plots may be predictable: muddled suitcases, muddled love-lives, muddled identities. Characters may be caricatures: Greek taxi-drivers, Russian oligarchs, rich Americans, and middle-aged professors who are expert in obscure disciplines like "Scientometrics." The situations may be unrealistic, too. But Michael Frayne handles it all so well that you suspend disbelief and get carried along by the sheer momentum, fun, and mayhem that ensues.
It all starts simply enough. Dazzled by a smile, Nikki, discreet, nice, competent, efficient Nikki, PA to Mrs Fred Toppler and organizer of Foundation's annual Great European House Party on the Greek Island of Skios, mistakenly collects the wrong man from the airport. The wrong man but the right suitcase.
Meanwhile, the right man, complete with his much travelled keynote lecture notes and the wrong suitcase, ends up at a rented villa with a strange, highly disturbed woman. The woman is Oliver's latest amorous conquest, Georgie, who, arriving after Dr. Wilfred at the villa Oliver has been lent, unsuspectingly climbs into the mosquito-netted bed in which the professor is sleeping.
Georgie locks herself in the bathroom convinced that she is being attacked by a rapist. Dr Wilfred, unable to calm the woman and believing he is where the Toppler Foundation intended him to be, sets off to find breakfast. He gets horribly lost, and as messages, mobile phones, women (a second paramour of Oliver's turns up at the villa), taxi-drivers, suitcases and identities are lost, found, misinterpreted and misunderstood, he gets progressively more confused, bedraggled, and befuddled.
Oliver, in his new identity as Dr. Wilfred, and paper-clipped into his new, rather large, silk underpants, meets and totally charms the Toppler house guests, and in the course of the day is offered various patronships, partnerships, presidencies, and jobs worth many million dollars a year. He is in his element. This is the life he always knew he deserved. He works his magic on Mrs. Toppler and Nikki, and reveling in the challenge, is preparing to make up his after-dinner keynote lecture as he goes along.
Frayne, whilst mixing this potent brew of mayhem, pokes fun at human nature, at our gullibility, and at the delusions and self-dramatization in which most of us occasionally indulge.
The Fred Toppler Foundation exists to promote "civilized values" and to be "a centre of wisdom and civilization," which, as the widowed and wealthy Mrs. Toppler sadly notes, is a passion mostly shared by people who are past retiring age. The guests, as Nikki tells Oliver, are mostly from the States. "All horribly rich, of course, or they wouldn't be here. But awfully nice people," and they have been coming to Skios every year since the House Party started. They spend their time in seminars "studying Minoan cooking and Early Christian meditation techniques," and in classes on exotic subjects like "Late Mediaeval flower-arrangement." All this is interspersed with swims, siestas and "civilized conversation, over breakfast and mid-morning coffee, over pre-lunch drinks, lunch, post-lunch coffee, over afternoon tea and snacks," dinner and post-dinner drinks.
So anxious are these guests to accept and approve of Oliver in his role as a distinguished professor of an esoteric subject about which most of them know nothing, that when Oliver tells them the truth about his deception, they take is as a philosophical discussion about identity and trust:
"Someone has only got the say, 'Hey guys, I'm an expert,'" said Mr. Chuck Friendly, "and next thing he's operating on the President's brain, he's running the space programme."
"How do you know I'm Harold Fossetts?" said Harold Fossetts.
"How do you know you're Harold Fossetts?" said Morton Rinkleman.
"Hey, how do I know I'm Harold Fossetts?" said Harold Fossetts.
Of course, all the muddles have to be resolved in the end, but Michael Frayne does not do this in the usual way. First, he offers a quick summary of how this might be done. "A showdown. The grand denouement." The whole thing is part of a great causal chain where each cause "trails an effect at its heels like an obedient dog," and "the whole sequence of events could have been predicted in time to be included in Newton's Principia or the Book of Revelation." But instead of this, he resolves the situation in a quite different way.
We might prefer the causal-chain ending to Frayne's chosen one, but in the end, his ending is just another unexpected twist in a tale where unexpected events are at the heart of the fun.
Skios could be the ideal book to take with you as holiday reading on a Greek island.