What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Frayn Does Farce -- And Very Nicely, Too!

Why is a mysterious woman attending a gala event at a prestigious international foundation, wrapped only in mosquito netting? Why is she being pursued by apparently identical Greek taxi drivers? What's really going on involving the mysterious Greek financier and the even more mysterious Russian oligarch, and the swimming pool being built for the foundation's guests? Why is the mobile phone belonging to the much-lauded keynote speaker for the gala event residing at the bottom of a different swimming pool at the other end of the island, Skios? And who is the mysterious and mysteriously attractive Oliver Fox, who has appeared in place of that guest speaker (and adopting his identity), to bamboozle and charm Dr. Norman Wilfred's intended audience? Why does Georgie find herself trapped at a villa with Dr. Wilfred, and taking refuge in the bathroom from him and an apparently insane cleaning woman? Above all, will the cool, cool, cool Nikki Hook -- the epitome of grace under pressure -- do so well organizing the gala event that she becomes the next director of the Fred Toppler Foundation?

By the end of Michael Frayn's new novel, Skios, you'll have answers -- of a sort -- to those questions and many, many others. But as with a lot of novels, the fun isn't about what you find on the last page but what you experience along the way. And in this case, that's a lot -- Frayn has crammed a considerable amount of mayhem into 257 pages and events that stretch out over perhaps 36 hours, if that. Think Shakespeare's comedy -- no, I'm not comparing Frayn's prose or even his wit and humanity to the master, but a lot of the themes are that venerable. And many of them have popped up before in Frayn's work, although those who know him best as the author of Copenhagen, the tour de force drama featuring a debate about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life between physicists Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, are likely to feel a bit taken aback by the radically different nature of this novel. On the other hand, my first exposure to Frayn was waaaay back when one of his early plays, Noises Off, was appearing in the West End in London -- it was my senior year of high school, and was one of the plays we saw on that occasion. (And I definitely enjoyed it far more than I did Coriolanus at the age of 16....)

Skios is farce -- high farce, of a kind that will be familiar to fans of British comedy. Its characters aren't yukking it up -- they are deadly serious. Nikki wants the job (and true love); Georgie wants a fling. Norman thinks he wants to deliver his already well-traveled lecture (yet again), although -- hmm, maybe not? And Oliver -- well, Oliver is a professional charmer finally being taken seriously, although it seems only when he dons someone else's identity. And yet, the novel has all the hallmarks of the classic drawing room farce. Its characters lose their way, their luggage, their mobile phones, their identities and even their sense of self and their minds in this romp of a novel that takes great joy in poking fun at the whole phenomenon of Davos, Aspen and similar gatherings of "the great and the good."

I had a lot of fun reading this novel -- it's light and frothy and silly and, if you follow the self-important stuff that happens at Davos and Aspen, you'll enjoy the parody, too. Is it a "Booker novel"? In other words, does it deserve its slot on the longlist? Hmm, I'm not sure. It's nice to have a well-written book that doesn't take itself ponderously and seriously, by an author who is obviously having fun writing it. Is it memorable? I'm not so sure. I'm in no hurry to de-accession my copy (obtained thanks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program) but, as with even the best kinds of cotton candy, a little can go a long, long way. 4 stars.

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