“Reality isn’t Everything.”
Did someone declare Austrian literature month around here? First Anna Edes by Austro-Hungarian (yes that’s cheating a bit) Dezso Kosztolányi, then Concrete by Thomas Bernhard and now Fame by Daniel Kehlmann. I’m going to admit that I’d never heard of Daniel Kehlmann or his latest book Fame before, but he came highly recommended from Seeing the World Through Books. What is Fame–is it a novel? Or is it a collection of nine cleverly interwoven short stories? I suppose I should opt for the latter, but part of me really wants to lean into the novel idea for some reason, and this seems validated by the fact the author (and after all, he wrote it) states it’s a “novel in nine chapters.”
These stories or episodes are so well done, so clever, there’s not a loser in the bunch. Sometimes the connections between the characters are obvious, and sometimes the connections are much more subtle. While the characters come from various walks of life, there’s a common thread throughout: fame, identity, and the cell phone. Kehlmann introduces cell phones in his stories or chapters and never once does this ring a false note or seem contrived as cell phones become a crucial element through the lives of his characters.
Here’s an overview of each story:
In Voices (one of my favourite episodes), Ebling buys a cell phone and begins getting calls for someone named Ralf. At first he’s annoyed by the calls, and then he’s intrigued. Ralf becomes Ebling’s “doppelgänger, his representative in a parallel universe.” Ebling becomes increasingly disinterested in his own life as he waits for calls intended for Ralf–a man who seems to have a more far exciting time. In one great passage, Ebling is hiding from his wife and running off to the cellar to make assignations with sexy-sounding women:
He had worked out that he could say anything provided he didn’t ask any questions, but that people got suspicious the moment he wanted to know something. Yesterday a woman whose throaty voice he particularly liked had accused him directly of not being Ralf–all because he’d asked where in Andalusia they’d been together on summer vacation three years ago.
In In Danger (another of my favourites) neurotic novelist Leo Richter (who reminds me a great deal of a Woody Allen character) is on a circuit tour of Central America, and he asks his fairly new lover, Elisabeth, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders to go along. Richter is an astonishing blend of neuroses & self-centeredness, and there’s a sort of fuzziness instead of a dividing line between Richter’s reality and Richter’s fiction. He’s a hilariously funny character–terrified of air travel and yet unexpectedly casual in certain situations.
In Rosalie Goes Off to Die, an elderly woman diagnosed with terminal cancer books a trip to a Swiss clinic where she plans to end her life. But is this her plan or Leo Richter’s?
In The Way Out, famous actor Ralf Tanner’s life takes a turn for the worst when his phone stops ringing. He experiences an identity crisis which is exacerbated by sessions watching Ralf impersonators on YouTube and reading error-riddled articles on Wikipedia:
He had long suspected that the act of being photographed was wearing out his face. Was it possible that every time you were filmed, another person came into being, a less-than-percent copy that ousted you from your own presence? It seemed to him that after years of being famous only a part of him survived, and all he needed to be whole again was to die, and to be alone in the place he truly belonged: in films and in his myriad photographs.
The coup-de-grace arrives when he stumbles into a discotheque and learns he can’t even impersonate himself convincingly.
In The East detective writer Maria Rubenstein attends a writers’ trip to Central Asia, and here she learns the hard way that fame and cell phones don’t always mean a great deal in the squalor and harsh poverty of a gadgetless third world country.
In Replying to the Abbess, Blanco, a phenomenally successful writer known for his bestsellers that explore the meaning of life and inner serenity discovers his own nihilistic truth after reading a letter from an Abbess questioning his faith.
A Contribution to the Debate is written by Molwitz aka mollwit–a forum and chat room poster who’s unexpectedly asked to attend an important business conference. This has to be my all-time favourite episode. Molwitz is a walking disaster–a 37-year-old man who ignores personal hygiene (after all, his relationships takes place in cyberspace), lives with his controlling, hysterical mother and whose social life is spent on various internet forums. This section of the book is written by Molwitz, and some of his conversations resemble internet forum exchanges. Here he is, seriously disturbed when he discovers he has no internet access in the hotel:
At Reception, I demanded instant Internet. The woman looked at me like an obelisk. “Internet! Hello, Internet!”
Her: “not working right now.”
“Pardon, what, how, huh?”
Her: yes, so sorry, service interrupted at the moment, usually the rooms have wi-fi, but not for now.
Me: just stared. Couldn’t get it.
“It’ll be fixed next week.”
Me: Fanbloodytastic. Really helps me. What’s the prob?
Stared at me blank. Sarcasm: new territory for her. So shocked felt faint. Hotel parked in booniest boondocks. No village, no Internet cafe, so either someone lent me his HSDPA card, or situation pitch-black. And come on, nobody lends you their internet card, everyone’s afraid you’ll download movies at company expense. So: catastrophe. Catacombs. Night night.
And then Mollwitz runs into Leo Richter….
How I Lied and Died concerns a man who begins an affair that’s either facilitated or complicated by a cell phone.
The last story, In Danger revisits Elisabeth and Leo Richter. This time, they’re on her turf when Leo accompanies Elisabeth to a dangerous war zone. She knows it’s dangerous but she thinks she “wanted finally to show him this real life.” At first Leo acts in a fairly predictable fashion asking the European doctors if the soldiers in jeeps carry “real” weapons. We might expect writer Leo Richter to blur reality and fiction, but is it a coincidence that his girlfriend Elisabeth’s life mirrors that of one of his most famous characters? Instead of the trip defining reality for Leo, Elisabeth finds herself in a confusing blend of fiction and reality.
Fame is highly entertaining and really very funny–no argument from me on that score, but the book is a lot more than that. I found myself thinking about the characters a great deal, and then I’d return to the book and reread quotes. In Fame, Kehlmann’s characters don’t exactly struggle with reality. They juggle with it as their lives are caught between reality and fiction.
The East and The Way Out both explore the connection between reality and fame. The main characters in these stories are celebrities, yet when they lose their fame they both cease to exist and find themselves sliding towards new lives. Their existence is defined by their fame to one degree or another. When that’s stripped away, what’s left? I think most of us would argue that the projected ‘famous’ images of Ralf and Maria are more real than Mollwit’s internet identity, and yet all three characters flounder when detached from the identity they’ve formed for themselves. Are the images we’ve formed of ourselves fragile once removed from their context?
What of Mollwit? His entire life is spent flaming others on the internet through various identities, and in a sense you can hardly blame him as his ‘real’ life is quite dreadful. But what is Mollwit’s real life? Is his internet life just as real as his pitiful home & office existence? And this moves to the question of the image we have of ourselves and the image others have of us. Which is real? How ‘real’ is anything?
I find myself agreeing with Leo. Here’s a conversation he has with Elisabeth:
“All this isn’t real,” she said. “Or is it?”
“Depends on your definition.” He lit a cigarette. “Real. It’s a word that means so much, it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”
Review copy courtesy of Pantheon books. My version is translated by Carol Brown Janeway