Skios – Michael Frayn and the perils of probability (Booker Prize Long List)

Well he would work it out for himself a he went along, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.  Sadly. Because for the moment he was a living metaphor of the human condition.  He knew not whence he came from nor whither he was bound, nor what manner of man he was, nor why he was there at all.  He was being taken somewhere for some purpose, but of what that purpose was he remained in ignorance.

This is the first work of Michael Frayn’s I’ve read and i will tell you it will not be the last.  This is an intelligent, funny romp of a farce where every mistake that could be made is made and fate, chance and determinism are made to defend themselves under the writers powerful magnifying glass. That which takes a literary beating is broad ranging from problems with accents, wealthy pseudo intellectuals, academicly trained intellectuals, Greek mythology, new age self ordained monks and newly wealthy Vegas showgirls. Yes, this is a farce.  Probably intantly recognisable from my list there. As a farce it doesn’t stray too far from the genre, although Frayn is such an accomplished writer he adds a little philosophy to break up the constant slap stick – and for me this was a welcome break.

If they had been living in a story, of course, they might have guessed that someone somewhere had the rest of the book in his hands, and that what was just about to happen was already there in the printed pages, fixed, unalterable, solidly existent.  Not that it would have helped them very much, because no one in a story ever knows they are.  And even Dr. Wilfred, with his doggedly Newtonian faith in causality, wouldn’t claim that future events in the real world have that kind of already achieved actuality.

Parts of the novel are laugh out loud funny.  Freyn has a talent for metaphor and can describe a persons facial expression in a way that gives you better access than a visual. Sometimes the absurdity got a little tiresome for me – SO much goes SO spectacularly wrong that I found myself desperate for some stability. This was not a novel I could read in one sitting. I needed to come up for air regularly. However, the characterisation is strong and the personal motivations of the characters clear so I found this a haven when the chaos amid the determinism all got a bit overwhelming. But then, that’s farce for you. It’s not the kind of thing I usually read.

He set it in motion at the airport the previous evening, he is forced to realise, and the overwhelming probability is that it will now operate just as Newton, Einstein, and the real Dr. Norman Wilfred would wish.  Each cause, he will almost certainly find it instructive to note, trails in an effect at its heels like and obedient dog, each effect gratefully acknowledges a cause as its legitimate master. There is no room for any ridiculous impromptu interventions.

Which of course, the book is full of.

Ultimately this is a book about cause and effect and determinism and the futility of human existence.  People are who they say they are and who others want them to be summed up in the classic sentence: He had made himself Dr. Wilfred by his own individual act of will. He remained Dr. Wilfred by the will of others.  Sentences that delight such as this one pepper the novel, so that one can excuse it if many of its characters  – and yes even the setting – seem a little dated. I would have loved to see him do something like this with social media, or on-line dating or merchant banking. Ah!  that would be something.

Illustration by Clifford Harper/

Mr. Papadopoulou had sat down in the seat next to Mr. Skorbatov, left temporarily vacant by Darling Erlunder, who had got Wellesley Luft mixed up with Ludleigh Wells and was telling him how much he loved his best seller about how prayer could improve ones orgasms. 

Perhaps in the end it was this sense of being a tad dated that prevented this wonderful novel from making the Booker Short List.  Whatever it was that got in the way, I’m glad it was on the long list because now I have been introduced to Michael Frayn and luckily I have all his other wonderful books to read.