FAME: A Novel in Nine Episodes

Daniel Kehlmann
translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Pantheon Books ($24)

by Salvatore Ruggiero

Daniel Kehlmann’s new work, Fame, may be one of the few examples of a collection of stories that when brought together actually constitute a novel. The nine tales and their respective characters only become stronger and more lucid when seen through the alternate lenses Fame has within. Kehlmann’s book is an exercise in writing without a core, where there is no easily perceptible overarching protagonist that threads the entire narrative together. It is also an exercise in congealment, but one where the adhesive is the reader’s perception.

In the first episode, “Voices,” after many protestations from his wife and child who claim that he’s unreachable, Ebling finally decides to get a mobile phone. Immediately though, he starts receiving phone calls for a man named Ralf. The callers all have different voices, young and old, male and female. And Ebling can’t figure out why he’s receiving someone else’s messages. It only becomes worse when a woman begins to threaten him with ending “their relationship” unless they meet for dinner. In the vein of a Paul Auster novel, Ebling might take on this Ralf personality as he agrees to this meeting; but he then chooses not to show. Yet like an Auster novel, Ebling is aware of his actions due to these mistaken phone calls and the concept of doubling. The narrator states that as Ebling was watching soccer with his son, “he felt an electrical prickling, it was as if he had a doppelgänger, his representative in a parallel universe, who was entering an expensive restaurant at this very moment to meet a tall, beautiful woman who hung on his words, who laughed when he said something witty.”

Moreover, the second episode, “In Danger,” starts with a novelist exclaiming: “A novel without a protagonist! Do you get it? A structure, the connections, a narrative arc, but no main character, no hero advancing throughout.” And herein lies the central conceit. The speaker is Leo Richter, “the author of intricate short stories full of complicated mirror effects and unpredictable shifts and swerves that were flourishes of empty virtuosity.” He feels that he can get away with such a novel concept for a novel because “this was now the age of the image, of the sounds of rhythms and a mystical dissolution into the eternal present—a religious ideal become reality through the power of technology.” There is an optimism here that seems not to have pervaded contemporary literary culture. Metanarrative has always been a part of the prose tradition, from Cervantes’s Don Quixote to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, but in Fame, there is something that makes the meta-aspects of the novel feel fresh, as if just discovered.

The rest of the stories bounce off each other, using characters and tales hinted at in other chapters. The phone calls that have been mistakenly going to Ebling finally catch up with the intended receiver, the famous actor named Ralf, who now feels as if someone has stolen his life. A blogger writes an overly long post in order to discuss how he wants to be in a Leo Richter novel. A character in a Leo Richter novel prepares herself for death only to be disallowed such a termination. A self-help author who everyone seems to be reading decides that he wants to retract everything he’s ever written by committing suicide.

Fame appears to have a laissez-faire attitude as it allows its plots and characters to move where they want to move, yet the reader is constantly reminded of the author’s presence, that things can be changed on the author’s whim. Everything is at the mercy of the creator. And yet even the creator succumbs to his own feelings and, more frighteningly, to technology:

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. If no one can prove to me where I am, if I myself am not absolutely certain, where is the court that can adjudicate these things?

What do we do when there is no solid ground, when we can’t define the world around us? Such ponderings make this book quite a leap from Kehlmann’s previous novel, Me and Kaminski, which feels lighthearted by comparison. Both are works that search for authorial presence and authorial definition. They seek a subject, but the subject is always evasive.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010