- - Friday, September 14, 2012

SKIOS
By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan/Holt, $25, 260 pages

Michael Frayn is a very funny writer. I remember almost literally falling off my chair with laughter when I saw “Noises Off ” in London years ago, and his farceur’s wizardry with plotting has not abandoned him. Time was, however, when plot meant something with a beginning, a middle and an end, but Mr. Frayn now appears to be adopting Ezra Pound’s modernist modification of Aristotle’s rule to “beginning, whoop, and then any kind of a tail-off.”

In other words, I loved “Skios” and laughed my way through it until the ending, when I suddenly found myself asking, “What the — ?”

The novel concerns itself with the endless chains of casualty and causality in human life, but it also relies for its effect on our knowledge that these are matters that are traditionally explored for the sake of extracting some meaning from them. In a farce like this, that means a coupling. Or multiple couplings. Fate brings people together; and the more capricious the fate, the more we like the result when it promises love and happiness.

“Skios” sets out to explore these mysterious concatenations of consequence but, at the same time, deny us any satisfaction of our hunger for meaning. This is not a series of crazy accidents leading to a happy-ever-after but a series of crazy accidents leading only to more crazy accidents. It’s not capricious fate resulting in anything firm to base our sense of reality on, but capricious fate all the way down.

Set on a fictional Greek island where an American foundation invites jet-setting academics to flatter rich people into thinking they are being given exclusive access to the top brains in the world, the novel focuses on four characters in particular with a fifth thrown in to add a level of uncertainty.

Nikki, the young woman who makes the arrangements for the foundation’s speakers, is proud of having snagged as her next guest the eminent scientist professor Norman Wilfred. When she goes to meet his flight from London, Oliver Fox, an English ne’er-do-well is arriving on the island at the same time for an assignation with Georgie, a friend of Nikki’s (though Nikki doesn’t know of her presence there). Annuka Vos, the fifth character, only appears very late in the proceedings and has recently thrown Oliver out of their shared home for buying a donkey.

The plot is thrown into motion when Oliver’s and Dr. Wilfred’s suitcases get mixed up at the airport and Oliver, suddenly attracted to Nikki who has come to pick him up, impulsively decides to pretend to be Dr. Wilfred. For reasons too complicated to explain here, Dr. Wilfred then finds himself keeping Oliver’s assignation with Georgie.

Well, you can imagine a lot of the rest, though it takes a Michael Frayn so brilliantly to satirize the international lecture circuit by showing how Oliver Fox is able to succeed in his impersonation of Dr. Wilfred for far longer than even he imagines possible.

Yet a lot of the humor of the novel relies on our expectation that this will be one kind of book in order to surprise us by making it quite another kind. All five of these main characters prove to be more or less sympathetic, some of them surprisingly so, and all five are in one way or another in need of a complement. At least in my case, the reading habits of a lifetime could not but have me from a very early stage mentally arranging the love affairs of Georgie and Dr. Wilfred and Nikki and Oliver, and wondering how Annuka’s arrival will shake things up.

One understands, of course, the “Copenhagen” author’s strictness with our understandable but apparently no-longer-legitimate longing for someone to make sense of things, but it does rather leave us wondering why we should care any more about these victims of fate than he does. The whole thing rather appears to be just a meditation on “how endlessly uncertain life was” and how, as Oliver finds to his own astonishment, “You were who you said you were, even if they knew you weren’t.”

It’s an intellectually intriguing thought and one that produces much of the novel’s humor, but its real foundation lies in Oliver’s musing about his own imposture as Dr. Wilfred, whoever that may be, as “a living metaphor of the human condition.” Sitting in the back of the cab with Nikki on the way from the airport to the foundation,”he knew not whence he came nor whither he was bound, nor what manner of man he was, nor why he was here at all. He was being taken somewhere for some purpose, but of what that purpose was he remained in innocent ignorance.”

It’s kind of funny when you think about it.

• James Bowman, author of “Honor, A History” (2006) and “Media Madness” (2008) is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.