"Real. It's a word that means so much, it doesn't mean anything anymore." By the time novelist Leo Richter makes this pronouncement near the end of Fame, the reader will almost certainly agree with his sentiments. Daniel Kehlmann's novel can be read, in many ways, as an extended exploration of the distinctions between artifice and reality or, more precisely, between story and "real life," whatever that consists of. Defining that distinction - only to blur it again repeatedly - is the ongoing project of Kehlmann's brilliantly playful novel, the thread that unites nine stories into a fascinating whole.
Disorientation is also a theme that runs throughout Fame - for the reader as much as for the characters who populate its pages. In the opening vignette, a man named Ebling finally breaks down and purchases a cell phone, only to discover that the number he's been assigned seems to belong to someone named Ralf. Ralf gets a lot of very interesting phone calls, and Ebling finds himself playing along as he constructs his own interpretation of Ralf's life. Later, Ralf himself - the famous movie star Ralf Tanner - comes to realize that a professional impersonator is doing a better job of being Ralf Tanner than Ralf himself is. Popular self-help guru Miguel Auristos Blanco, whose works of armchair philosophy grace bedside tables and newsstand shelves at every turn in Kehlmann's world, realizes, as he answers his fan mail, that he has lost all faith in the comforting platitudes that have made him a best-selling author.
Authors - and their sometimes troublesome characters - appear throughout Kehlmann's novel. At the center is the aforementioned Leo Richter. His girlfriend Elisabeth, who works with Doctors without Borders, is terrified that Richter is only mining her life and those of her colleagues as material for his next story: "People who have experienced nothing love to tell stories," she remembers an old colleague telling her, "while people who have experienced a great deal suddenly have no stories to tell at all." Meanwhile, a telecommunications specialist who spends all his free time contributing to online discussion groups encounters Richter at a conference and realizes that he'd love nothing more than to be immortalized as a character in one of Richter's stories.
In probably the most fascinatingly fluid episode, "Rosalie Goes Off to Die" (a short story supposedly written by Richter himself), the main character heads to a Swiss assisted-suicide clinic following a terminal cancer diagnosis. As she approaches her scheduled date with death, Rosalie begins to entreat the author himself to spare her, to write an alternate ending, resulting in a playful dialogue between author and character about the forms and function of fiction. Not surprisingly, the author always has the upper hand. Even trying to write one's own story is fraught with complications; in "How I Lied and Died," a tragically disillusioned telephone executive (actually the one responsible for the Ralf/Ebling mixup back in the first chapter) tries to maintain two separate romantic relationships, only to discover that he's lost the "real" version of his life amid the lies he's been telling: "How strange that technology has brought us into a world where there are no fixed places anymore. You speak out of nowhere, you can be anywhere, and because nothing can be checked, anything you choose to imagine is, at bottom, true."
Early in Fame, Leo Richter muses about the possibility of writing a novel without a protagonist. Again, in a form of ironic self-commentary, Daniel Kehlmann has beautifully managed to do that very thing, demonstrating that it's possible to create a narrative arc, tension, resolution (of a sort), even a bit of suspense through the use of interlocking characters, scenes, and most of all, themes. With energy, flexibility, and elegance, Kehlmann constructs a brilliant whole, simultaneously playful and thoughtful, certainly the kind of novel that engages readers emotionally and intellectually in equal measure.
This review was originally published in September 2010, and has been updated for the November 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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