Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Heavy Meta

Tom Leclair


German-Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann's Fame is a Nabokovian puzzle, a game of hide-and-seek, and a playful reflection on cultural renown and the lack thereof. Told in nine episodes that initially appear discrete but then rapidly connect with one another, the book focuses on three celebrities, three nobodies, and a minor author named Leo Richter, who early on speaks of a novel with a "narrative arc, but no main character." Another character critiques Richter's fiction, thinking it "full of complicated mirror effects and unpredictable shifts and swerves that were flourishes of empty virtuosity." That the work described above sounds a lot like Fame is a typical signal of Kehlmann's metafictional tendencies here.

Taken individually, the stories are realistic, sometimes comic, occasionally pathetic anecdotes about people who are either desperate for attention or spoiled by too much of it. As the title suggests, some of them are famous—action-movie star Ralf Tanner, popular-mystery scribe Maria Rubinstein, and Miguel Blanco, a best-selling Brazilian writer who resembles Paulo Coelho. As a counterpoint of sorts, portraits of a few male nobodies get tossed into the mix, two of them employees of a cell-phone company, all of them envious of the sex and money celebrities enjoy.

When one of the nobodies is accidentally assigned Tanner's phone number, the characters come into contact. As other random connections accumulate, the reader may reasonably think, "Ah, a novel about the zero degree of separation in our digital world." But then, in the seventh episode, one of the nobodies meets Leo Richter, telling him about the cell-phone business. It is here that Fame "shifts and swerves," making the reader double back, as Kehlmann plants the strong possibility that Richter, with his knowledge of the cell-phone business, has written all of the episodes—that he's not just a character but the author of the book itself.

This in turn inspires a new set of questions, for instance: What motivates Richter's writings, and how accurate are they? He is a main character in two of the episodes. In the first, he is selfish, nervous, and concerned with literary prizes. In the second, the book's last episode, he is generous, courageous, and on a humanitarian mission in Africa, too busy to accept a prize. If all the stories are by Richter, Fame seems to have a "narrative arc" in which the author learns to devalue fame. Unless—and here the game gyres into the undecidable—Richter entirely invents the improbable piece set in Africa to upgrade his image, his fame, in which case the closing episode is a fabrication in an otherwise largely autobiographical novel by Richter (in this novel by Kehlmann).

Although Kehlmann has said he spent his teens reading Borges and Nabokov, John Barth provides the best comparison. The dizzying braid of inside and outside in Fame—Richter as character, Richter as author—is very similar to the Möbius-strip tale, authorial interventions, and "complicated mirror effects" of Barth's 1968 Lost in the Funhouse, a series of inventively linked fictions. Barth aimed, he has said, for "passionate virtuosity" but was often accused of "empty virtuosity," the charge Fame introduces against itself.

Somewhat facile in its wrong-number and coincidental-meeting connectivity, Fame is half empty, half full. The brevity of the episodes allows the numerous characters little chance to gain emotional traction, and many exist primarily to serve Kehlmann's "Who wrote it?" game. The stories are set on four continents, but only one of the locales, an unnamed Asian country, is rendered vividly. Although Kehlmann's third-person prose is serviceable, it's unremarkable. Here is the tepid, clichéd conclusion to one of the more dramatic episodes: "One false move and there would be no way back, her former life would be gone, never to return. She sighed. Or perhaps she only dreamed the sigh." Only one story breaks the smooth surface with the telegraphic, snarky style of an obsessive poster on Internet forums. Kehlmann has Nabokov's and Barth's love of false leads, false bottoms, and, perhaps, false dichotomies, but he does not possess their intricate verbal textures.

Kehlmann, known outside German-speaking countries since the publication of Measuring the World in 2005, does present some interesting ideas about fame and employs a provocative form for exploring them. Central to the novel is his notion that fame has a Möbius-strip quality. The three nobodies who seek fame are influenced, directly and indirectly, by people who find themselves lost within it; the nobodies then accidentally destroy the fame—Tanner's—they desire while ruining their own lives. The author, who may or may not be Richter, can't escape the loop—his critique of empty fame may make him more fully famous, but his writing reveals that he knows fame is a false pleasure: arbitrary, tenuous, and often achieved through deception. Although these recognitions are not groundbreaking by themselves, they get a new whirl from Kehlmann's methods, which might be summarized as "No game, no gain."

But where does it stop? Unlike Kehlmann's first two books to be translated into English—Measuring the World and Me and Kaminski (2003)—his latest novel is self-referential to the end. Kehlmann closes with two Europeans playing cards with an African, with whom they cannot communicate: "'Sometimes he deals,' Muller whispered. 'Sometimes we deal, then we look at the cards and he tells us who's won. What the hell kind of game is that?'" It resembles the one Kehlmann is playing. The novel's nine episodes are like cards you can shuffle into different combinations, deal into various interpretations. But nobody tells you who's won. Not me, certainly not Kehlmann. So the game of Fame goes on and on. If this Möbius-strip-like pursuit sounds profitable or enjoyable, ante up.

Tom LeClair is the author of five novels, most recently Passing Through (Drinian Press, 2008).

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