Do you remember Michael Frayn’s madcap play-within-a-play “Noises Off”? Have you read his satire “Towards the End of the Morning” (a.k.a. “Against Entropy”), frequently called the funniest send-up of journalism since Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop”? Are you, perhaps even now, searching for the perfect comic novel for the beach, the hammock or some lazy summer weekend?
Say “yes” to any of these questions and you should immediately head for your bookstore to buy a copy of Frayn’s new book, “Skios,”Democracy Copenhagen Constructions Booker Prize Headlong a romantic comedy constructed with the quick cutting and pace of a Marx Brothers movie. Neatly managing to preserve the ancient unities of time, place and action, the novel takes place entirely on the blissful Greek isle of Skios and focuses on the increasingly hilarious consequences of multiple cases of mistaken identity.
The plot itself is a symphonic elaboration of Saki’s “The Schartz-Metterklume Method.” In that famous short story, a bored London socialite, mistaken for a governess, decides to play the part to the hilt, with hilarious consequences (culminating in little children acting out the rape of the Sabine women). In “Skios” the coolly beautiful Nikki Hook is the personal assistant of Mrs. Fred Toppler of the internationally renowned Fred Toppler Foundation, this last being something like an Aspen Institute of the Mediterranean, nobly dedicated to wisdom and civilization. Central to the foundation’s yearly calendar is the Great European House Party, in which well-to-do people — mainly Americans — hobnob with the island’s “embedded,” intellectuals, renowned figures such as Swedish theologian Alf Persson and V.J.D. Chaudhury, “the great authority on comparative underdevelopment.”
During the House Party, the days are just packed. Guests spend time “in seminars studying Minoan cooking and early Christian meditation techniques” or “in classes watching demonstrations of traditional Macedonian dancing and late medieval flower arrangement.” These cultural labors are interspersed with “swims and siestas, with civilized conversation over breakfast and midmorning coffee, over prelunch drinks, lunch, and postlunch coffee, over afternoon tea and snacks” and, of course “further spiritual refreshment over dinner and various pre- and postdinner drinks.”
Still, the absolute acme of each House Party is the Fred Toppler Lecture, and this year Nikki has chosen the speaker. Dr. Norman Wilfred will address guests and distinguished visitors on “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.” Nikki, who dreams of one day heading up the foundation herself, is more than a little worried. There is something about the word “promise” that has recently made her heart sink, but she heads for the airport with her usual chipper smile and cool demeanor and discreetly blonded hair.
Meanwhile, the 50ish, fat and balding Dr. Wilfred is idly daydreaming about romantic adventure on Skios, imagining a cool young woman with discreetly blonded hair in her late 30s. As it happens, though, another man is indulging in similar thoughts. Oliver Fox is around 40, with a charming lopsided smile and a mop of light blond hair he occasionally flicks out of his eyes. A charming liar, he has arrived in Skios to hook up with Georgie, a 30-something woman he sweet-talked into spending a week with him at an island villa, a rendezvous that she has carefully hidden from her boyfriend, who is off sailing with his buddies. But as both Dr. Wilfred and Oliver stand waiting for their bags — which, as it happens, look exactly alike — all their intended plans and daydreams are about to veer onto another course.
Without going into details, Oliver, on the spur of the moment, pretends to be Dr. Wilfred and hurries away with Nikki, even as the master of “scientometrics” finds himself mistaken for Oliver and taken by taxi to the elegant island love nest. Meanwhile — in such novels, there is always a meanwhile — Georgie arrives a day before she’s expected and hurries to the villa, where she excitedly crawls into bed with the man she thinks is Oliver, even as the real Oliver, making his way to Nikki’s bungalow, gets lost and ends up in the bedroom of no less than Mrs. Fred Toppler — the former dancer Bahama LeStarr — who is entertaining the sinister Mr. Vassilis Papadopoulou.
By this point, Frayn’s whizbang plot is just getting started. I haven’t mentioned the look-alike taxi drivers Spiros and Stavros, the amazing business of three switched suitcases, the excavations going on for a supposed Olympic-sized swimming pool, the mysterious crate of “Marine diesel spares” or the fact that Nikki and Georgie were at school together. Oh, yes, and the reappearance of the goddess Athena.
From time to time, Frayn, putting on his philosopher’s hat, interrupts his neatly orchestrated zaniness to reflect a bit on the nature of personal identity and the limits of determinism. As “Skios” itself proves, sometimes what is supposed to happen isn’t necessarily what does happen.
To my mind, Frayn slightly hurries through the finale of his book, but even then he certainly doesn’t scant the farcical fireworks. This is one of the most amusingly complicated novels since David Lodge’s “Small World.” While the word “Skios” suggests the Greek root for “knowledge” or “knowing,” most of the characters in Frayn’s novel don’t have a clue about what’s going on. No matter. By page 2, readers will know without any doubt that they are in for a wonderful time.
Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Washington Post at wapo.st/
By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan. 257 pp. $25