Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Michael Frayn’s Skios (Review #3)

SkiosRating: 4
A Novel by Michael Frayn
2012 / 272 Pages

The Setup: The great master of farce turns to an exclusive island retreat for a comedy of mislaid identities, unruly passions, and demented, delicious disorder.

On the private Greek island of Skios, the high-paying guests of a world-renowned foundation prepare for the annual keynote address, to be given this year by Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science. He turns out to be surprisingly youthful, handsome, and charming–quite unlike his reputation as dry and intimidating. Everyone is soon eating out of his hands. So, even sooner, is Nikki, the foundation’s attractive and efficient organizer.

Meanwhile, in a remote villa at the other end of the island, Nikki’s old friend Georgie has rashly agreed to spend a furtive horizontal weekend with a notorious schemer, who has characteristically failed to turn up. Trapped there with her instead is a pompous, balding individual called Dr. Norman Wilfred, who has lost his whereabouts, his luggage, his temper, and increasingly all sense of reality–indeed, everything he possesses other than the text of a well-traveled lecture on the scientific organization of science.

In a spiraling farce about upright academics, gilded captains of industry, ambitious climbers, and dotty philanthropists, Michael Frayn, the farceur “by whom all others must be measured” (CurtainUp), tells a story of personal and professional disintegration, probing his eternal theme of how we know what we know even as he delivers us to the outer limits of hilarity. (From the hardcover edition)

This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 08/24/2012

Humorous. Hilarious. Absurd. Funny. All of these words can be used to adequately describe the tightly written, complex ensemble of off the wall characters that populate the world of Michael Frayn’s Skios, but only one word can accurately describe the story itself: farce. Judging this novel by the very definition of this word – a light dramatic composition marked by broadly satirical comedy and improbable plot – Skios effortlessly exceeds all expectations, but is worthy of the Man Booker Prize? Ultimately that’s a difficult question to answer.

I could spend time telling you all about this one, but that’s already been done well enough as part of the BookerMarks project here and here again. The only thing I can add to what’s already been written is that buried underneath the comedy, Frayn’s investigation of identity and what we’ll all but force ourselves into believing no matter how much we know it to be untrue, is pitch perfect. Yes, the examples he offers up for his theories are fantastical to say the least, but it doesn’t make them any less interesting, only all that more entertaining.

Let’s be honest, who hasn’t at one time or another gotten carried away, jumping to wildly inaccurate conclusions based on limited information when faced with some type of perplexing situation? Each of us navigate these potential building blocks for disaster every day and if we let ourselves get too carried away, highly interesting results most certainly can be obtained. Perhaps they’re not amusing for us, but certainly so for those on the outside looking in. Sometimes it’s all wildly beyond our control, but other times we’re clearly in command, doing something we know that will end horribly, but we just can’t resist the temptation involved.

Back to the Man Booker bit though, the only criteria for winning is being:

“…the best novel of the year written by a citizen of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland.”

That’s it. Every year a different panel of judges has only this one rule in mind. The reading public however, we all have our own wildly varying definitions of what a Booker winner should be. Perhaps you think the winning novel must be a serious work of fiction. Perhaps your co-worker thinks that only stories written by famous, established authors are worthy of the prize and their precious reading time. We criticize and debate and bitch and moan for a few months out of every year, but in the end what makes something “the best novel of the year” is horribly subjective.

Is Skios the best farce written this year? If you’re comfortable calling that a genre all its own then I’m comfortable saying that, yes, in the eyes of this humble reviewer it is in fact number one. Does it deserve a place on the short list based on this? Yes, if it were up to me I’d reserve a spot for it, but let’s be honest, in the long run not many comedies win the coveted prize.

Sure, sure, I know, there’s Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, but I’m not sure that I’d label that one as being funny in the most traditional sense of the word. That’s a book that works the reader hard intellectually with some very funny moments thrown in.

Skios is more than worth a read. It’s a fun distraction that doesn’t pretend for even one second to be anything more than what it is: pure farce. It should not be penalized for mastering an art form that many may feel is less deserving of proper literary award recognition.

Euphoksoliva indeed!



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