Well Hon(or)ed Narrative Techniques

The Comedies of PlautusThere is a successful forms of fiction which can easily morph into the basis for dozens of Hollywood movies (usually starring Hugh Grant, Katherine Heigl, or Cheech & Chong). An early model is Plautus’s Menaechmi. The Menaechmi is a comedy about mistaken identity, involving a set of twins and includes various stock characters (Roman at the time but some still around on television sit-coms) including the parasite, the comic courtesan, the comic servant, the domineering wife, the doddering father-in-law and the quack doctor.

This is one of my favorite plays. You may be more familiar with more recent incarnations of the same story including Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (and Twelfth Night to some degree), Goldoni’s play I due gemelli venetian , and  Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. Of course the idea of having look-alikes (twins) being confused is a common trop in literature, television, and movies (Cat Ballou, Dead Ringer).

Another successful narrative technique which I associate with Irving Wallace is the classic “many-to-one” map of developing conflict and slowly building curiosity (if not suspense) until it all comes together in an exciting and thrilling conclusion which ties up all the conflict and resolves all the curiosity. It’s like a literary equivalent of the Big Bang, only in reverse.

AthenaLet’s look at Michael Frayn’s recent novel, Skios.

Take a delicious case of mistaken identity, sprinkle liberally with narrative u-turns, a constant flow of ironic twists and misdirected luggage, and characters confronted by an unfamiliar language, unfamiliar customs, and the modern ability of the cell phone to bring people together who think they are far apart when in fact they are near-bye but the cell phone doesn’t differentiate location any more in this global village, and a secret nefarious plot developing behind the already convoluted plot of the novel, a plot that involves guns. Then when it all explodes (BANG!) at the end of the novel and it all becomes clear, we are treated to a modern classic version of the deus ex machina and the world returns to happiness and order.

Well, maybe not but the novel does reach at least a partial conclusion and most readers will be satisfied with the results. But as entertaining as this novel was, it didn’t suggest anything more to me than that it was written by a clever author.

I’ve read a couple of novels by Michael Frayn and would recommend them all as being entertaining and competently written. True, I would gasp in horror if I saw a college level literature course concentrating on Frayn’s work, but it’s not dreck so grab a title and read it: decide for yourself what you think about the author. One thing you should notice about Frayn is that he is rather prolific. Here, from Wikipedia, is a list of his major works:

Novels

  • The Tin Men (1965)
  • The Russian Interpreter (1966)
  • Towards the End of the Morning (US title: Against Entropy) (1967)
  • A Very Private Life (1968)
  • Sweet Dreams (1973)
  • The Trick of It (1989)
  • A Landing on the Sun (1991)
  • Now You Know (1993)
  • Headlong (1999)
  • Spies (2002)
  • Skios (2012)

Plays

  • The Two of Us, four one-act plays for two actors (1970)
  • Black and Silver, Mr. Foot, Chinamen, and The new Quixote
  • Alphabetical Order and Donkeys’ Years (1977)
  • Clouds (1977)
  • The Cherry Orchard trans. Chekhov (1978)
  • Balmoral (1978)
  • The Fruits of Enlightenment trans. Tolstoy (1979)
  • Liberty Hall (1980) (revised version of Balmoral)
  • Make and Break (1980)
  • Noises Off (1982)
  • Three Sisters trans. Chekhov (1983, revised 1988)
  • Number One (1984) translated from Jean Anouilh’s Le Nombril
  • Benefactors (1984)
  • Wild Honey trans. Chekhov (1984)
  • The Seagull trans. Chekhov (1986)
  • Uncle Vanya trans. Chekhov (1986)
  • Balmoral (1987) (further revised version)
  • The Sneeze (1988) based on short stories and plays of Chekov
  • First and Last (1989)
  • Exchange trans. adapted Yuri Trifonov (1990)
  • Listen to This: Sketches and Monologues (1990)
  • Jamie on a Flying Visit; and Birthday (1990)
  • Look Look (1990)
  • Audience (1991)
  • Plays: Two, Methuen (1991), (1994) ISBN 978-0-413-66080-0
  • Here (1993)
  • La Belle Vivette, a version of Jacques Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène (1995)
  • Alarms and Excursions: More Plays than One (1998)
  • Copenhagen (1998)
  • Plays: Three, Methuen (2000)
  • Democracy (2003) [1][2]
  • Afterlife (2008) [3]

Non-fiction

  • The Day of the Dog, articles reprinted from The Guardian (1962).
  • The Book of Fub, articles reprinted from The Guardian (1963).
  • On the Outskirts, articles reprinted from The Observer (1964).
  • At Bay in Gear Street, articles reprinted from The Observer (1967).
  • The Original Michael Frayn, a collection of the above four, plus nineteen new Observer pieces.
  • Speak After the Beep: Studies in the Art of Communicating with Inanimate and Semi-animate Objects, articles reprinted from The Guardian (1995).
  • Constructions, a volume of philosophical twaddle (1974).
  • Celia’s Secret: An Investigation (US title The Copenhagen Papers ), with David Burke (2000).
  • The Human Touch: Our part in the creation of the universe (2006).
  • Stage Directions: Writing on Theatre, 1970-2008 (2008), his path into theatre and a collection of the introductions to his plays.
  • Travels with a Typewriter (2009), a collection of Frayn’s travel pieces from the 1960s and 70s from the Guardian and the Observer.
  • My Father’s Fortune: A Life (2010), a memoir of Frayn’s childhood.

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