by Katherine Orr
Fame, Daniel Kehlmann’s latest book, is described as ‘A Novel in Nine Episodes’, although to my mind this is simply a matter of marketing – it could just as easily be described as a collection of linked short stories. The real pleasure of the book is that the connections between ‘episodes’ are so playfully drawn. Fame is fun to read. There is satisfaction to be had in the Russian doll effect of tales within tales; equally there are some strong, stand-alone pieces. Many of these share a fascination with ‘what if?’ scenarios … What if your mobile phone number was, through some system error, reallocated to a stranger who then wreaked havoc on your life by pretending to be you? What if you flew to a distant country on business and found yourself, through an uncanny sequence of events, suddenly stranded indefinitely and bereft of your identity? What if a famous actor found that his life had suddenly been taken over by a stranger who looked exactly like him, only better? Kehlmann delights in the surreal displacement of his characters, often leaving them with no choice but to abandon any sense of complacency or entitlement.
Reading Fame, I felt that anything could happen – the writer promotes an active sense of make-believe. Kehlmann also gives himself free-rein with the meta-fictional: he allows one character to speak out and beg for an alternative fate, while another pleads with her boyfriend (a neurotic, self-obsessed writer), ‘Don’t put me in a story. It’s all I ask.’ There is an enjoyable and democratic quality of callousness to Fame – no-one is exempt from sudden changes of fortune – but it is not a book entirely without a heart. Kehlmann’s ‘episodes’ are an intelligent exploration of contemporary life, with its unprecedented and sometimes startling freedoms (mobile phones, the internet, international travel). In the world we inhabit now, boundaries can be blurred in a way that is both inspiring and unnerving. In Fame, Kehlmann accompanies the reader on a journey into a shared disorientation.