“A novel without a protagonist!” muses a fictional writer near the start of Daniel Kehlmann’s ingenious Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes. “A structure, the connections, a narrative arc, but no main character, no hero advancing throughout.” This amorphous form is exactly what Kehlmann pulls off in this slender, but profusely astute postmodern work. The much-acclaimed German writer, though not well known in the U.S., is a literary star in Europe, and one of his novels, Measuring the World, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. Fame (impeccably translated here by Carol Brown Janeway) may prove his overdue calling card to a wider readership on this side of the Atlantic.
The above-quoted novelist with such grand ambitions is Leo Richter, just one of a number of characters who pop in and out of the episodes in the novel. Each chapter reads as a self-contained story, and not until we reach the end of the book do all of the interconnections fall into place. The book opens when an ordinary man purchases a cell phone and immediately begins receiving calls meant for someone else—Ralf Tanner, an international movie star. Tanner’s name or likeness recur in some of the other stories, and in one he appears in the flesh, pretending to be a Ralf Tanner impersonator to evade notice. Richter and Tanner are the glue of the narrative, as is a third recurring character, Miguel Auristos Blanco—a Paulo Coelho-like Latin American writer of mega-selling spiritual books. Most of the episodes reference one of these three exemplars of fame in some way. Tanner’s oversized image shows up on billboards outside hotel windows; Blanco’s books are sold in even the remotest shops.
A wise and witty look at our obsession with celebrity, technology and what it means to truly connect with one another.
One episode is a Richter story about a terminally ill woman who travels to Switzerland for an assisted suicide. In another, Richter is stalked by an über-nerd cell phone technician (the person responsible, we ultimately learn, for Ralf Tanner’s phone mix-up) who fantasizes about becoming a character in one of the celebrated writer’s stories. A woman mystery writer replaces Richter at the last minute on a cultural junket to some vaguely definable former Soviet country, losing her cell phone power, and ultimately her identity, as she gets absorbed in the strange Kafka-esque landscape.
Identity, technology, celebrity and the strange ability we now have to both connect and disconnect instantaneously with huge portions of the globe are the themes that propel the novel. One character, a businessman, aided by the mutable powers of the phone and computer, begins a once-unthinkable extramarital affair, puts it best: “How strange that technology has brought us into a world where there are no fixed places anymore. You speak out of nowhere, you can be anywhere, and because nothing can be checked, anything you choose to imagine is, at bottom, true.”
Terms like original and tour de force get bandied about a lot in the reviewer’s game, but Fame earns both these appellations. Daniel Kehlmann proves himself a 21st-century Italo Calvino, employing the kind of ironic wit and charm that great Italian writer brought to his last works. Fame is the perfect novel for our times—at once disjointed and cohesive, emphasizing our need to connect and our increasing inability to do so.