The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Island Life

A few days ago I finished reading Skios by Michael Frayn. A few thoughts.

Skios is an experiment to write a farce in the form of a novel. I didn’t know this when I bought the book, as the words Michael and Frayn in conjunction above the title were enough. But clearly the thought of another Michael Frayn farce is a thrilling prospect; this is, after all, the fellow who wrote Noises Off and Clockwise.

But as an experiment it doesn’t quite work, because the farce doesn’t quite work. I hate to bang on about rules because rules are there to be broken, but in this instance, the problems of the book are all because it doesn’t follow the rules of farce.

Firstly, the inciting incident, the pebble that precipitates the avalanche, is that in an airport arrivals lounge a character called Oliver Fox sees the name ‘Dr Norman Wilfred’ being held up on a card by an attractive woman and decides to ‘become’ Dr Norman Wilfred, just to see what happens. This is the keystone of the whole novel, and it doesn’t really work, because Oliver doesn’t have a very good reason to do this – and in farce, everything has to happen for a simple, logical reason – and because through the course of the novel he can decide to stop pretending to be Dr Norman Wilfred any time he wants without incurring any negative consequences. So throughout the story, this character acts as a wobbly wheel. There should have been a good reason why he had to pretend to be someone else, and why he can’t stop the pretence. If it was an Ealing comedy, it would be because he was on the run from the law. That would do it.

Secondly, there’s the problem of pace. On film, or in a play, the audience will excuse characters making mistakes based on partial information or talking at cross purposes if there is a limited amount of time available, with no time for them to explain away the various misunderstandings. But in Skios, there isn’t that sense of pace; the events unfold over the course of several days and for large parts of the story there is such a lack of urgency that characters start sunbathing. There’s also the problem that the story unfolds at two different ends of an island, so there’s all the time taken getting from one end to the other to be accounted for; normally farces take place within one building, or one street, specifically to avoid the problem of time being wasted getting from a to b. And also because, if the action unfolds in a limited space, it’s more plausible for characters to bump into each other; without that confinement, a lot of plausibility is lost.

Thirdly, Frayn makes the odd choice of telling the story mostly through internal monologues (when he isn’t killing the pace by spending half a page by describing the sun, moon, the sea and the flowers) which means a lot of the potential for comedy is lost. Because in a novel, words speak louder than actions. Dialogue is also fast to read, whereas description is slow. When there are comic exchanges the book does come alive albeit briefly. It's why the BBC radio adaptation is markedly funnier than the novel, as the adaptor has been forced to re-write scenes to take place in terms of dialogue.

And fourthly, most disappointingly of all, there’s the ending. With a farce, the whole point is the backward-engineering from a satisfying conclusion where all the plot threads coincide and every developing problem is resolved (or at least exposed). In Skios, Frayn perversely decides not to do this. He does spend a couple of pages on a ‘what if’ scenario, where he asks ‘what if these were characters in a book’ and gives a synopsis on how the story could end neatly and comically. Having done that, he instead ends the book in a way which comes across as an authorial shrug of resignation, as if he couldn’t be bothered to finish the story at all. The end result is that plot threads are left hanging, various characters have been introduced to play no part in the proceedings, and basically you’re left wondering if the whole exercise has been a waste of time. Imagine if a plane had crashed onto Fawlty Towers 25 minutes into an episode, wiping out all the occupants in a huge fireball. That’s the literary effect that Frayn achieves.

So, coming from the guy who wrote Noises Off and Clockwise, as well as the fabulous Headlong and the gorgeous Spies and Copenhagen and so on and so on, this is a weird mis-step. It’ also odd that he should think writing farce as a novel was an experiment, when PG Wodehouse and Tom Sharpe have pretty much proved that it can be done (and how it should be done). So if you want to read a great farce, I’d recommend their works, or any of Joe Keenan’s awe-inspiring novels.

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