Michael Frayn is perhaps best known as an award-winning playwright, especially for his theatrical farce, Noises-Off. But he is also an accomplished novelist. His new novel Skios is a dizzying send-up of foreign travel and academic foundations, combined with stock comic elements such as mistaken identity, identical suitcases and taxi drivers who don’t speak English.
The novel is set at the Fred Toppler Foundation, a dreamy mix of white walls, blue waters and cascading bougainvillea on the gorgeous Greek island of Skios. The Foundation is run to perfection by the ultra-competent Nikki Hook, Mrs. Toppler’s personal assistant, whose genial temper and blonde good looks mask her loneliness and ambition. Ms. Hook has arranged for Dr. Norman Wilfred, a notable in the world of science management, to give the annual Foundation lecture in front of an international high-paying audience. At the airport, she mistakenly picks up Oliver Fox, an impulsive womanizer with tousled hair and a dazzling smile who has come to Greece to hook up with Georgie, a woman he picked up in a bar when her boyfriend stepped away for a mere minute. While Nikki and Oliver head off to the Foundation, the hapless Dr. Wilfred, after picking up the wrong luggage, gets taken to a rented villa, where Georgie awaits.
You can see where this is going. Skios unravels like an anxiety dream where the sense of things slipping out of control increases with every step. Each time the novel shifts toward resolution, something happens that spins everything else out of control. The series of misunderstandings continues unabated as Oliver’s former girlfriend arrives at the island, along with a cast of Russian oligarchs and American investors with their own nefarious agenda.
Skios gets interesting when Frayn plays with the genre, suggesting we often believe what we want to believe. People can convince themselves, despite all evidence to the contrary, that a young and handsome playboy is a middle-aged and frumpy renowned scientist. This insight, along with Frayn’s sharp-eyed satire of the academic culture circuit, provides some food for thought among the froth.