By Michael Frayn
On the stage, farce is about running in and out of doors, concealment and revelation, expectation and illusion, pretence and persuasion, need and want. Michael Frayn, who wrote what many regard as the best stage farce of the age (Noises Off) wondered if he could write farce as a novel, and this book is the convincing—and consequently very funny—result.
How could a younger, handsomer and utterly feckless guy successfully impersonate a staid expert guest speaker at the annual gala of an international foundation dedicated to preserving western civilization, held on the private Greek island of Skios? A lot of coincidence helps, but much aid comes from very contemporary examples of human nature. Rich, powerful and educated, the gulled audience nevertheless is a willing accomplice. When the imposter suggests he could easily be someone else, they happily agree. “We’re all such fools!”
There are some slamming doors and bedroom misadventures as well as star-crossed suitcases and taxi rides, though the mechanics of this farce also involve cell phones as the modern gateways to confusion. The ambitions, emotions and pretensions of a number of other characters are exposed and involved, including the real guest speaker—an expert in the “scientific management of science” whose convictions as well as disposition make him peculiarly vulnerable to chaos.
Another contemporary mechanism of farce working here is the space-erasing jet engine, which makes the difference between places (Skios or skiing in Switzerland) way too easy to miss.
What the novel adds to stage farce is getting inside the characters’ heads to learn the precise nature of their delusions, and the yearnings and weaknesses that feed them. How they—and we—tend to interpret the world from a few tellingly misunderstood clues is deliciously described.
This novel extends not only from Frayn’s plays, previous novels and journalism but from his philosophical work (The Human Touch) with its insight that: “The world plainly exists independently of us—and yet it equally plainly exists only through our consciousness of it.” When the two factors collide you may have drama and tragedy, or comedy and farce. In this book, much of the farcical humor as well as character revelation resides in what people believe (and why they believe it) as contrasted with how things really are--or at least, how others believe they are.
Even with satirical touches, Frayn creates a convincing world so endearingly vulnerable to this kind of mayhem that farce seems inevitable, yet you do find yourself rooting for the irredeemably irresponsible protagonist to get away with it. There are sweet reminders of Kosinski’s Being There (as well as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) as events wind and unwind in this fragile oasis of uncertain civility where bored but lionized experts speak to rich, dutiful but bored audiences. Not everything at the foundation is what it seems either, as the routines of greed undermine the supposed maintenance of civilization, in a fiendishly funny finish featuring a goddess.