by Geoff Wichert
From the Renaissance on, the theme of history has been expansion: the Age of Exploration carrying adventurers and map-makers to every corner of the globe; the Reformation replacing a monolithic church with religious diversity; philosophy yielding to ideology; capitalism finding the price of everything while liberating us from obligation to its value. This expansion seemed on course to go on forever, like the post-Big Bang universe. But lately, one thing has begun to shrink. That would be us. Now every day brings news of scientific breakthroughs that diminish nature’s only witness. Our senses don’t reliably inform us, nor do we wait on them as we thought we did for the wherewithal to make choices. How could we ever really know each other, when we don’t know ourselves?
Michael Frayn is the poet laureate of this collapse. Or perhaps its ‘clown prince.’ A number of literary authors have taken on themes like the mind’s preference for a good story instead of reason, and how those stories are undermined by narrative unreliability. But no one else handles the impact of technology on the scaffolding of knowledge and the human desire for certainly with Frayn’s scathing humor. Most of us like to laugh; all of us need to. Some prefer to laugh at things falling about, while others require the witty insight that eviscerates appearances. Frayne offers it all in generous helpings.
Those who enjoy stage farce—mistaken doors and misplaced assignations—may remember Frayn from Noises Off, the best-known of his fifteen stage plays and the masterpiece and template of these juggling acts, in which any number of characters, plots, and subplots are kept suspended in chaotic misadventures. Those who prefer an art-historical context, whether Donna Leon’s Venice or Steve Martin’s Soho, might recall Headlong, one of Frayn’s ten novels, where he unspools a solution to one of the most exquisite mysteries in all art. It’s a mark of his skill that Frayn, almost alone among writers, is at the top of his class both on stage and between pages. In Skios, he’s merged his genres and their antithetical strengths. Readers watch the action play out before them as if on stage, but are privy to the characters’ intentions, confusion, and false certainties. More, we are granted insight into alternative possibilities: roads not taken that branch out even beyond the spaghetti bowl of conflicting motives and snarled misunderstandings.
Skios is a Greek island (not a collection of Swiss sports enthusiasts) to which the Fred Toppler Foundation invites intellectuals, culturati, magnates, and their various accompanists. It’s a stew that turns even the most hardened professional amateur on some level. The guest of honor at the Foundation’s annual gathering has gone astray, lost like checked luggage, and been replaced by someone hoping to escape his life’s consequences and start over. But old consequences trail him, and new ones defeat all efforts to sort out the confusion. Frayn’s x-ray vision lights the way down to the level of actual luggage, passports, and the indispensables we take for granted. But nothing can be taken for granted in Skios, amid an ensemble of faked ruins concealing a greater, un-ruined truth that could easily be lost to the foibles of those who set themselves up as its defenders.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.