On the Greek island of Skios, guests of the Fred Toppler Foundation are eagerly awaiting the keynote address of world-renowned scientist, Dr. Norman Wilfred. But the Dr. Wilfred who appears is not at all like they imagined - especially for Nikki, the overworked, under-appreciated and exhausted organizer of this high-profile event. Nikki is stunned to find that Dr. Wilfred is young, handsome, and extremely charismatic rather than the middle-aged, formal academic she was expecting to meet. In fact, Dr. Wilfred is so unbelievably personable, considering that he is a highly-acclaimed, brilliant scientist and researcher, that Nikki and the rest of the guests are stunned by his charm and wit. Dr. Norman Wilfred is seemingly a godsend for the stuffy, staunch Foundation, but there's just one problem....the man claiming to be Dr. Wilfred isn't Dr. Wilfred at all. He's just a young, bored, spontaneous man who happened to be mistaken for the distinguished scientist. Most normal people would quickly correct a mistaken identity, but not Oliver Fox. Oliver is tire of being Oliver, so why not be Dr. Wilfred for a few days? Everyone seems convinced enough.
Across the island, a young girl named Georgie has just arrived at her vacation villa expecting to meet Oliver for a long, possibly romantic retreat, but instead of the handsome young Oliver, she finds the highly confused and overwhelmed Dr. Wilfred. He claims to be some sort of doctor who has arrived on the island to deliver a lecture, so why the hell is he in her villa? And where in the world could Oliver be? Such are the questions raised in Michael Frayn's longlisted novel of farcical comedy and absurdity.
Skios isn't at all what I expected for a Man Booker Prize contender. It's outrageous, silly, and, well, kind of like a Monty Python sketch. But at the same time, it's also subtly poignant and thought-provoking. Skios reminds us that our identities are completely dependent on others' perceptions of us, whether we like it or not. And no matter how much you believe that "only you can be you," well.....all it really takes to screw that up is one case of mistaken identity and a guy like Oliver to play along. It's that easy.
And as if the plot line weren't funny and ridiculous enough, the book is also filled with a very colorful and eccentric supporting cast. From Sheiks to former showgirls, the cast of Skios provide all the tools you need to properly make fun of academia and intellectuals. And what better place to do it than the birthplace of philosophy and western civilization?
I must applaud Michael Frayn for successfully writing such an involved and complicated comedy, but sometimes the comedic elements did feel a bit overwhelming, especially toward the ending, where everything falls apart and comes together at the same time. It's basically like literary fireworks - loud, overwhelming, and extrasensory - but incredibly entertaining nonetheless.
This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 9/9/12