With Noises Off, Michael Frayn wrote one of the most perfect plays you could ever hope for. A farce that had me laughing so hard I genuinely feared I might wet myself, it is a masterpiece of structure and design, not to mention comedy (I haven't seen the most recent production at the Old Vic but I understand that it proves that a perfect play doesn't always mean a perfect production - with something as technical as farce everything has to be right or it just doesn't deliver to the heights). For that alone he deserves a knighthood but he also happens to have churned out some cracking fiction in his prolific career; Headlong is a hugely enjoyable novel, Spies another, and I was even fascinated by his relatively recent non-fiction tome, The Human Factor. You always get the sense that Frayn is a jolly clever chap who could turn his hand to just about anything and do a decent enough job but there's no doubting that the man has serious skills when it comes to organising the mechanics of farce. His latest novel brings those to the fore and provides some perfect summer holiday reading. If you're looking for some entertainment whilst you lounge in the sun somewhere then this book could be perfect. Reading can just be fun sometimes.
On the Greek island of Skios lies the Fred Toppler Foundation. Now overseen by his widow Mrs Fred Toppler (formerly known as dancer Bahama LeStarr) the Foundation is dedicated to bringing great creative and scientific minds together each year in an event which culminates in the Fred Toppler Lecture ('They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.'). This year Mrs Toppler's PA, Nikki, has organised the guest lecturer, a Dr Norman Wilfred, expert in Scientometrics, or the scientific management of science. Nikki may be 'Discreetly tanned, discreetly blond, discreetly effective and discreetly nice' but she is also ambitious and this year she is making her play to succeed the Foundation's other director, now ageing and reclusive, and if everything goes according to plan then she will emerge triumphant. But of course everything does not go according to plan. And thank goodness.
It doesn't take much for the wheels to fall off but the skill with which Frayn sets up his pieces is a huge part of this novel's enjoyment, especially as we await the big payoff at the end. I shall attempt to give a basic precis without giving too much away. Imagine a baggage carousel. Dr Norman Wilfred has adopted the perfect position at it to retrieve his bag as soon as possible (years of worldwide travel on his lecture tours have taught him this much and more). It will be easy to spot with its red luggage label (another trick he's learnt) except that there is another man at the carousel awaiting a similar case with an equally distinctive red label and a moment's inattention from Wilfred will send each man away with the other's case and the two men will end up swapping not just cases but even identities. That other man is Oliver Fox, a chancer whose 'tumbled dish-mop of hair was a blond as blanched almonds, his soft eyes as brown and shining and dates.' He has come to Skios to enjoy a dirty week in the sun, or more likely out of the sun, with a girl he's met for just five minutes in a bar somewhere. Except that she's been delayed and Oliver, being the chancer that he is, finds himself unable to resist the opportunity that presents itself when Nikki asks whether he might be Dr Norman Wilfred. His only reply - 'I cannot tell a lie' and that is enough for him to head towards the Foundation worrying little about delivering the keynote speech and more about consuming some champagne and having a little fun with Nikki before his date finally arrives. The real Dr Norman Wilfred meanwhile, expecting to be picked up from the airport, has had a rather confusing conversation with one of the taxi drivers there but is soon whisked off to his accommodation, a surprisingly swish set up which looks more like a holiday villa. Get the idea? Oliver's date manages to get another flight and arrives at the villa to find what she supposes is her bit of fluff asleep in the bed, where she soon joins him. Oliver in the meantime gets confused about which exactly of the little apartments belonged to Nikki as he creeps about in the night.
There are plenty more characters to arrive and it really is like watching a grand master place his chess pieces on the board. The two main men are diametric opposites; Oliver always going with the flow as a firm believer in Chance, Norman a rational man who has a 'Newtonian faith in causality'. Will one's hubris lead to his humiliation whilst the other's pomposity is punctured?
But how endlessly uncertain life was! Things might be like this, or might be like that, or might be like nothing anyone could imagine - and it all depended upon the endlessly shifting sands of who was who and when they were and where.As a setting for such deceptions the Foundation is perfect. Built from the ground up (previously there were just two rusty sheds where they gutted fish) the foundation may look respectable and as ancient as the temple to Athena that lies next to it but it is as phoney as the woman who helped to create it. Bahama LeStarr was of course devastated to lose her elderly and fabulously wealthy husband so soon after they tied the knot, the creation of a Foundation in his name was the least she could do, no matter what it took.
'We had to fetch our own temple from Zakynthos. It was dedicated to Aphrodite. We changed her name, the way I changed mine. Now she's Athena. The agora came from Pelion. The church from Samos.'In such an environment, as the other guests assemble to wine and dine with the star speaker, it is little wonder that they don't tumble that he knows nothing of what he is supposed to be speaking on. At one point, so easy does he find the deception, he even tries to tell them - 'Perhaps I'm not Dr. Norman Wilfred.'
'So here we are - we're making it all up as we go along. It's like a random mutation in a gene. If I tell you the truth, that I'm Oliver Fox, then consequences follow from that. No one sits here listening to me. No one even lets me through the gate. So the world goes on its way without my being here saying all this.
'And if I say I'm Dr Norman Wilfred, then the world goes another way. Oliver Fox - Dr Norman Wilfred - what does it matter? Heads/tails. Strawberry/vanilla. But who knows what the consequences will be?...We're all in this together. I said I was Dr Norman Wilfred. But you believed me. So between us we have determined the whole future course of the universe.'
Frayn does include a little discourse on Causality v. Chance but this book is more concerned with tickling your sides than your grey cells. Dodgy dealings, twin taxi-driving brothers, ill-fitting clothing, sun, sea, sex and . . . erm, Scientometrics: what more could you ask for? It's a joy.