It was true that there was also some satisfaction to be derived from being Dr. Norman Wilfred. Purely as a consequence of his being who he was, seriously worded documents drafted by the labor of others were placed in front of him to be signed. His advice and his skills as a chairman did not go unappreciated. AS soon as people heard the name they knew exactly who they were going to get. They were never disappointed. Dr. Norman Wilfred was what they expected, and Dr. Norman Wilfred was what they got. (pg. 7)
Nikki Hook felt the back of her shirt, to make sure that is was still tucked into her skirt, then touched her hair to check that it had not been blown out of place by the air-conditioning in the car. She could see the passengers through the glass screen as they emerged from passport control and crowded around the carousel like impatient pigs round an empty trough. There were twenty or so other people on either side of her, holding clipboards and lists, also waiting. Chauffeurs, drivers of taxis and limousines, representatives of tour operators. Some of the women from the tour companies were tanned and blond, but none of them was as lightly tanned or as discretely blond as Nikki, and even the ones in their thirties, like her, were not as tastefully ensconced in them as she was. All these people, young and old, had their own opinions and memories, their own secret weaknesses and choice of underwear. In their own eyes, in the eyes of boyfriends, wives, children, and grandchildren, of employers and fellow employees, they were all no doubt whoever they were. But only Nikki Hold, she couldn’t help being aware at the back of her mind, was Nikki Holt (pgs. 20-21)
He should have never come. He should have started his medical studies. He felt a lump in his throat, as if he were eight years old and going back to school again. A whole day – two days – a week – a term – stretching in front of him with no company but the cockroaches and an invisible answering machine with only the same half-dozen words to say for itself. And himself, the apparently inescapable Oliver Fox. It was funny. Everyone thought it was so wonderful, being Oliver Fox. Everyone, but himself. (pg. 26)
As you can see from the quotes, Michael Frayn’s novel Skios is concerned with identity. The question of identity is infused throughout the book from the two Greek cab drivers, a Mrs who may not be married to the Mister, to the main mix up between an neer-do-well Oliver Fox with his encompassing grin, easy manners, and mop of hair and the inestimable (in his eyes at least) intelligent, prominent, leader of an scientific institute, Dr. Norman Wilfred. Dr. Wilford is on his way to give a lecture on the Greek Island of Skios for the Fred Toppler Foundation’s annual “House Party” where the wealthy gather to learn and converse. Oliver is on his way to Skios to meet a woman for an assignation, a woman he has previously spent all of five minutes with. At the airport, a mix-up with the luggage and the driving arrangements sends Oliver off to the Foundation and Dr. Norman to an empty villa. Oliver is quite happy being the good Doctor and the Doctor becomes increasingly distraught by the events that are happening to him, including an unknown naked woman who climbs into bed with him.
Reading Skios by Michael Frayn requires you to suspend your disbelief to a certain degree. How in this day and age of instant access to sources of information could someone not know that Oliver wasn’t Norman. Nikki Holt, the assistant in charge of the lecture seems so efficient (and she freely admits that she has a lot to lose if things don’t work out), surely she has seen a picture of the man she engaged to give the lecture. Of course that would spoil all the fun because without this key case of mistaken identity, the action of the novel would be a lot duller. I wondered in retrospect, if the author may be poking fun at the pseudo-academic world the novel takes place in – these rich intellectuals taking seminars in Greek cultural while waiting to hear the noted and distinguished Dr. Norman Wilfred on the subject of “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.”
Oliver is at ease with his new persona in part, because he has no negative feelings about his identity (unlike his feelings about being Oliver Fox). He likes the challenge, the adventure of outfitting his “spacious new house”, and he likes the ideas and opinions that come to him while residing there. He does have moments of qualm but ultimately feels he can handle anything that comes his way. And at first Dr. Wilfred is very upset and works very hard to maintain that he is indeed, Dr. Norman Wilfred to the point of desperately hugging the transcript of his lecture – proof that he is who he says he is but soon wonders if being Dr. Norman Wilfred might just be a bit confining. As for Nikki, what has her focus on discreteness and efficient led her to?
The novel takes place in a few days with a lot of action and conversation to cover the time period. At times I thought the theme was hammered a bit too much but I have never read Michael Faryn before and I see from some of his other books that he does tend towards the farcical. In the midst of all this humor is a subtle discussion of determinism and just how connected events and people are.
I enjoyed this book but do not see it as a Booker Prize winning novel and the committee did not move it on to the short list. I did have concerns about the ending – I thought that certain things were glossed over in a somewhat callous way. Even then, I can see why they happened. In a way I felt like a stick in the mud – perhaps my disbelief was not quite as suspended as I originally thought.