Reasonable Reads: “Skios” by Michael Frayn

What happens when an author subverts his plot to fully achieve his theme?

Plot: A farcical account of one man’s decision to impersonate a renowned doctor who is giving an address to a wealthy foundation on the fictional island of Skios.

Quick Summary: The final chapter of Skios turns the aforementioned plot on its head and frames the entire preceding narrative as insignificant.  This raises the question: what are the benefits and consequences of an author negating an entire story to fully realize his or her predominant theme?

Expanded Discussion: For the first 238 pages of Skios, Michael Frayn crafts a light and amusing meditation on chance and inevitability.  It’s a classic story in the vein of Twelfth Night about the follies and consequences of assumed identity.  Oliver Fox, a laid-back ladies’ man who leaves everything to chance, is presented with the opportunity to impersonate Dr. Norman Wilfred, an academic who is giving a keynote address on an exclusive Greek island.  Oliver’s ruse is successful; he charms event organizer Nikki and has the foundation’s president eating out of his hand.  Elsewhere on the island, the real Dr. Norman Wilfred finds himself stuck in a remote villa with Oliver’s intended female liaison and begins to question the surreal nature of his situation.

Oliver and Norman represent the twin poles of random occurrence and “perfectly rational” causality, two philosophies which clash through the text. (123)  It’s a strong dichotomy that’s weaved throughout Frayn’s yarn, providing a backbone for his satirical portraits of power, wealth, and romance.  Oliver’s instantaneous and unplanned decision to impersonate Norman is successful because of the unquestioning crowds who accept every word he says, regardless of their quality or depth.  Even Nikki, who is well aware that Norman is an older man, lets herself be swayed by Oliver’s charm.  Frayn’s breezy reflection on how chance and rationality intersect succeeds because of his characters’ adherence to their circumstances.

As the final chapters opens, it seems like shenanigans and a minor frenzy will ensue when Oliver and Dr. Wilfred finally come face to face.  Instead, Frayn concludes his book in an unusual manner: he provides a brief summary of what would have normally happened to the characters, but then identifies a trivial event with “no imaginable significance or place in any self-respecting causal chain.” (243)  This trivial event, in which a minor character unexpectedly reaches for a piece of dessert and lights himself on fire, sets off an entirely new sequence of occurrences to actually conclude the book.  And this sequence is substantially different from the first one- a gun battle suddenly erupts in the fire, creating mass chaos and leaving a number of people dead.

The shift in tone is jagged and more than a little bizarre.  Frayn had alluded to some sort of mob movement on the island earlier in the book, but the violence of the last chapter is completely unexpected and rejects the preceding levity.  It’s also an abrupt ending to the story.  All of the characters either experience hasty conclusions or just disappear entirely.

Frayn’s decision to end Skios in this way is his means of weighing in on the chance vs. rational causality debate, and he emphatically sides with chance.  In this respect, Frayn succeeds in providing a forceful realization of the book’s core theme by shifting the narrative to reflect his verdict.  The events of the book were so unexpected that even his narrator couldn’t foresee them; ipso facto, chance is the order of the day.

This is a clever way to end the book, but it also feels flimsy and somewhat inconclusive.  Frayn doesn’t bridge any unassailable tenets of exposition by shifting his narrative so abruptly; after all, it’s his story and his characters can do whatever he wants.  But the incongruity between the majority of the novel and its conclusion makes the final sequence a hollow realization of the theme.  Readers spend time and energy in a narrative with the expectation that the characters, setting, and plot are consistent in some fashion, even if this consistency is defined by inconsistency (i.e. from the start of a book, the setting changes every chapter).  To establish a set of constructs for almost 90% of a story and then have those constructs upended is, in some ways, to undermine the reader’s trust in the author.

This is especially the case in Skios, where Frayn presents the narrator as being both omniscient in knowing what would have happened but also unable to foresee the actual conclusion until it occurs.  After crafting a very specific plot with carefully detailed elements, it’s grating to have the author abdicate his authority and have a “random inconsequential event” shape the end of the book.

It also raises questions over why it was worth investing time in reading about all of Frayn’s characters and this story in particular.  His satire imparts some bemusing profiles of power but, after the conclusion, it’s essentially unwedded to the plot and primary theme.  The idea of a rogue incident changing the course of a narrative could have been applied to any story and it’s unclear why Frayn couples it with his social commentary on wealth and influence.

What, then, should we make of Skios?  How should we consider a book that to some extent trivializes its own plot and characters to realize his theme?   In the end, I appreciate what Frayn accomplishes with Skios, since I’ve never read a story in which author so forcefully undermines his plot to hit home a message.  But it’s a tempered, dispassionate appreciation for technique rather than story.  As a concept, Skios is an exercise in the unorthodox that was worth reading, but as a narrative, it isn’t particularly memorable or essential.


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