x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Fame won't make Daniel Kehlman any more famous

Eschewing a central narrator, Kehlmann clearly intended Fame to be revolutionary. However, its thinly sketched personalities are both derivative and self-referential.

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Only four of the protagonists in Fame, Daniel Kehlmann's new collection of nine fictional "episodes", linked by a few shared characters and a handful of recurring concerns - are, in fact, famous. Three of these are writers: one of mysteries, another of new-agey self-help, and a third of literary fiction. The fourth is a movie star. Apart from a globetrotting, humanitarian doctor (the girlfriend of the "literary" writer), the rest of the book's principal characters hold drab white-collar jobs involving computers and mobile phones. What unites them all is not celebrity, but the experience of doubling, of disembodiment - the division and multiplication of their identities through means as old as lying and as new as the internet. Kehlmann's characters all find themselves living side by side with shadows of themselves, and proceed to doubt their own realities - tricky business for fictional characters.

Fame is, in other words, a rather self-referential affair. The second episode begins with Leo Richter, a writer, enthusing over his new idea: "A novel without a protagonist! Do you get it? A structure, the connections, a narrative arc, but no main character, no hero advancing throughout." This is, of course, just what Kehlmann himself - born 35 years ago in Germany, raised in Austria, and known internationally for Measuring the World, a bestseller throughout Europe - has attempted here. Leo thus alerts the reader as to what's coming, and also, perhaps, reveals his vanity, as the somewhat modish idea is hardly new (Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio is a classic of the form; one of the best recent examples is Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad). Richter is a pompous figure; when we meet him, he's giving lectures in Central America, accompanied by Elisabeth, a doctor - Without Borders - who has recently become his girlfriend. She's fretting over news that two of her colleagues have been seriously wounded in Africa. Richter, meanwhile, is troubled by word that a literary prize is going to someone else. That contrast - the noble humanitarian making a difference versus the vain man of letters worrying about his share of acclaim - is sadly not the last of Fame 's clichés.

One sign of Elisabeth's integrity (a word especially apt in this context) is that she does not wish to become a character in one of Leo's books. (It's too late, of course; her resemblance to his most famous heroine, a doctor named Lara Gaspard, is what attracted him in the first place.) This sets her apart from, for instance, Mollwitz, the employee of a mobile-phone company who is staying at the same hotel as the glamorous couple while he attends a telecommunications conference. After spying Richter, Mollwitz realises he badly wants to inspire a character in one of the author's fictions - something he later confesses in an internet chat room devoted to celebrity sightings. His post in that forum comprises the book's seventh episode. Kehlmann is to be commended for attempting chat-speak; the result, unfortunately, is not convincing - though something may be lost in translation. Perhaps in a German chat room one might encounter "logicalwise" and "rigidify" next to "totally unchill and majorly bad." It seems unlikely, though. (Carol Brown Janeway's translation is otherwise fluid and readable, as are her renderings of two earlier Kehlmann books.)

Perhaps it goes without saying that Mollwitz - the author of rambling, online disquisitions about celebrity sightings - lives with his mother, loves JRR Tolkien and science fiction (specifically, the mid-1990s television show Babylon 5), and smells bad. (His interest in Richter's fiction would be a nice deviation from the type if it didn't feel like a conceit necessary to tie Fame together.) Characterisation has never been Kehlmann's forte, to judge, at least, from the three of his books available in English. Measuring the World, his sporadically fanciful but mostly historical novel about Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt, works well partly because Kehlmann does not burden the story with psychological nuance; he speeds briskly through two lives crowded with incident, one belonging to the owner of an unimaginably brilliant, abstract mind and the other to a fearless man restless for discovery. Me and Kaminski, an earlier book, suffers because its shallowly rendered characters do far less interesting things (though the ending is clever).

The same can be said about most of Kehlmann's latest, too. In the episode titled "How I Lied and Died", a man cheats on his wife and struggles to sustain the fictions he creates to keep her in the dark. In "The Way Out", the movie star switches places with an impersonator. In "Replying to the Abbess", Miguel Auristos Blanco, the author of massively bestselling, risible books (the character, Kehlmann has admitted, is modeled on Paulo Coelho) puts a gun in his mouth, abruptly taken with the notion that only suicide "would make him a great man". This last tale is less expected than the others, though it expresses a similar, well-worn idea: that those who lack celebrity want it and those who have it have had enough.

Fame has its moments, though. The first episode, "Voices", is a neat if somewhat mean-spirited allegory for our culture of celebrity - not only the sort enjoyed by global icons but the micro variety as well. Ebling, a computer engineer, purchases his first mobile phone and soon discovers that he's getting a movie star's calls (the same one from "The Way Out"). He starts to pretend on the phone that he actually is the famous actor, and gradually loses interest in the rest of his life.

Another episode, oddly titled "The East", involves a mystery writer, Maria Rubenstein, who goes to Central Asia - either Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, we're led to believe - with a group of cultural emissaries (she has taken the place of Richter, who cancelled at the last minute). The group leaves her behind, she overstays her visa by a day, and her mobile dies. Suddenly she is stuck - rooted, in a nearly pre-modern way - in a distinctly foreign place. (Fame is not the only recent German-language story collection to feature mobile phones so prominently; Ingo Schulze published a book in 2007 called Handy - German slang for the device - which was published in English earlier this year as One More Story.)

Tellingly, perhaps, "The East" depends not at all on the meta-fictional flourishes that appear throughout Fame. The most ostentatiously meta-fictional episode, "Rosalie Goes Off to Die", is the collection's low point. A generous reading might interpret the story's weakness as intentional, since the piece is presented as the work of Leo Richter. But a deliberately bad story could be more interestingly bad than this one. Rosalie is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and, facing a painful death, decides to go to a "Swiss association she'd heard about that helped people who wanted to hasten things along." On her way to the airport, she asks her author to change the plot. No, Richter answers. "Theoretically maybe I suppose I could intervene, but then the whole thing would be pointless!" "At some point it'll be your turn," she says. "I'm real!" the author shouts back. "Are you?" she asks.

In fact, neither author nor character feels the slightest bit real at that point, so it's difficult to care about their exchange. The familiarity of the conceit from, among other places, a Hollywood film from 2006 (Stranger than Fiction) starring Will Ferrell and directed by the man who helmed the last James Bond picture, lowers the story's interest a little further. The final episode returns to Elisabeth and Leo, at this point in Somalia where she has work to do. Slowly she realises that she is now in one of Leo's stories: he is taking what he's learned from her so that he can persuasively depict doctors at work in a war-torn country, attending to victims of the violence and trying to avoid murderous soldiers. She resents Leo for doing it, but he becomes a more sympathetic figure, at least in my eyes. Here, at last, is a noble, if ethically complicated, job for the writer. It feels like a good place to begin.

David Haglund is the managing editor of the literary magazine PEN America