A Novel in Nine Episodes
Pantheon: 192 pp., $24
Daniel Kehlmann's novel "Fame" includes what must be one of the most hackneyed sex scenes I've read this year. It begins with the narrator musing, "I desired her so much I would have given a year of my life." Once coitus begins he finds that "my existence split into two halves: a before and an after, for all time." As the ecstasy continues, the lovers become "so entwined that we could be one body or Siamese twins," and, quite mysteriously, "we clutch each other as if we were swimming in the Sargasso Sea."
Despite a little too much writing like that, "Fame" is not a dismissible book. Kehlmann is the author of 2005's "Measuring the World," a vaguely Pynchonesque novel about 19th century mathematicians and explorers that has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide and collected a slew of awards. "Fame," Kehlmann's only novel after "Measuring the World," moved more than 100,000 copies in its first week of release last year in Germany. That's no fluke: Bad sex aside, this author has built a reputation as a mordant postmodernist who combines the geeky adventure of Neal Stephenson with the icy wit that
was once known for.
"Fame" bills itself, according to its subtitle, as "A Novel in Nine Episodes," or, as one character puts it, "a novel without a protagonist … a narrative arc, but no main character, no hero advancing throughout." Each of the nine stories is self-contained, though they interlock thematically, as well as in terms of plot and character. The book is built around the novelist Leo, who in fact writes some of the stories we read in "Fame." His foil is Miguel Auristos Blancos, a Brazilian author of pabulum loosely modeled on Paulo Coelho and whose New Age-y odes to greater consciousness pop up throughout the book. There is also the intriguing Lara Gaspard, whose rear-view mirror ubiquity builds her into a subject of much intrigue.
All of the stories involve protagonists on the verge of identity switches, and they can be loosely placed into two groups: the metafictional and the non. The former all involve the misanthropic Leo (don't ask him where he gets his ideas) and his dealings with people who either fear becoming his characters or hope it happens. The stories on the second track deal with a cellphone company that has mistakenly assigned the same phone numbers to multiple people, which plays havoc with identity in a world in which one's words are largely disembodied.
The cellphone plotline is typified in the book's first story, "Voices," in which the terminally dull life of a computer technician named Ebling is enlivened when his cellphone begins buzzing with callers for someone named Ralf. As Ebling receives longing calls from what certainly must be beautiful women and dire entreaties from erstwhile business partners, he moves from outrage at the intrusion on his privacy to a sinister delight at being able to manipulate another's life without consequences. Yet he lacks the courage to seize the opportunity to become Ralf, and the story ends with the cellphone silent, Ebling's life again awash in stolid normalcy.
We meet Ralf in the novel's fourth story, "The Way Out," in which readers discover that he is a famous actor with an urge for the one thing he can't buy: anonymity. At wits' end, Ralf goes to a disco that specializes in celebrity look-alikes, where he is promptly mistaken for an impersonator of himself and is told his act could use a little work: "It's hard — it takes lots of practice. To be able to interpret someone, you have to live with them. Often when I'm in the street I don't even notice that I'm doing Ralf Tanner. I live as him." Ralf eventually sees his life usurped by an impersonator. He's pleased that "he'd actually found the way out," but the story's final twist makes for an unsettling commentary on fame in an Internet age: wary of being mistaken for the "real" Ralf, he chooses not to board a bus.
The counterpoint to these stories are the ones in which Leo's creations fret over their ontological status. A good example is "Rosalie Goes Off to Die," in which Leo tussles with Rosalie, an elderly woman he has consigned to euthanasia. The rub comes when Rosalie suddenly begins talking back, pleading with Leo to let her live. Cold and in control, Leo insists that it's simply impossible: "What's happening to you is what you're here for." Yet there's a twist: Rosie escapes her poison, but nonetheless ceases to exist "without any death throes, pain, or transition" when Leo puts down his pen.
None of the plots in "Fame" is original, yet in their twists and turns Kehlmann hones them into his own gnarled, precise questions, their power increased by how they are embedded and projected into one another. Kehlmann's prose too often substitutes cliché for creativity, but it succeeds in cleanly conveying the book's many ideas and structural resonances. On a systemic level "Fame" feels very carefully wrought: It is a book whose almost mathematically precise juxtapositions suggest a deeper meaning and logic without ever tipping the author's hand. A little more rigor would have shielded the book from charges of excess cleverness, but, cleverness intact, "Fame" remains an engaging, provocative entertainment.