Daniel Kehlmann’s Metatastic Fame

Leon Neyfakh | August 30th, 2010

Daniel Kehlmann’s unabashed jones for pithy postmodern jokes is infectious. Fame is one prankish little book, and even if at first you catch yourself wondering if this kind of thing can still be fun, you won’t worry for long.

It’s a novel-in-stories, maybe the native literary form of the internet age, in which every plotline we’re aware of or have thoughts about is one we have pieced together from multiple blog posts, articles, and other types of “content” absorbed online. The narrative of Fame takes shape gradually, too: Instead of a linear storyline, we get a fragmented view of a universe inhabited by an ensemble cast of characters who are circumstantially central to each other’s lives.

Kehlmann — a young German writer whose best known work, a blockbuster in Europe, is 2006’s Measuring the World — uses that structure to weave an intricately mapped arrangement of metatextual jokes. There’s one chapter in which a character who has resolved to commit suicide instead of battling her just-diagnosed cancer is seen begging her author to spare her life and just rewrite the plot of his story so that she lives. She talks to him, he talks back — that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with here.

Like Jennifer Egan’s recent novel, A Visit From the Goon Squad, Kehlmann really works the “novel-in-stories” format to its fullest. One of the best things about this book is the delight he takes in pivoting from one perspective to the next chapter to chapter, how reliably he manages to surprise you at the beginning of each of his nine stories. I liked Egan’s book for how much fun it was to see what part of the universe the chapter you were about to start reading would center around, what improbable perspective she’d take. With Kehlmann it’s the same: There’s a thrill in this kind of brain activity, and he really knows how to provoke it in his readers. Fame is appealing in the same way complicated toys are.

In the opening story, “Voices,” we meet a fellow named Ebling whose phone won’t stop ringing with calls from people who have apparently dialed the wrong number looking for someone named Rolf. It is Ebling’s first cell phone, and he is made very uncomfortable by it. The fact that all these people are calling and asking him questions causes him to go mad, until he is impersonating this Rolf — a man he knows nothing about — to people who apparently know him intimately. His own life starts seeming foreign, and he eventually forgets who he is. Pretending to be Rolf and going along with whatever glitch has caused the situation makes him feel like he was always meant to be Rolf, that he was living as the wrong person his whole life.

A little while later we meet actual Rolf, a world famous actor who has his own identity problems, and toward the end we meet the numbskull from the telecommunications company whose fault it was that Ebling got assigned his phone number.

These kinds of maneuvers are irresistible to a certain kind of person, for whom there is nothing more pleasurable than admiring the architecture of a meticulously designed plot, than following the wiring that connects the nine stories and figuring out how it’s held together. It’s like Kehlman has a really fragile model of a house made of popsicle sticks in his hands and he’s trying to pass it off to you, and you’re trying to take it from him without letting it fall to pieces.

It’s also like a skateboarding video where guys perform stunts using a seemingly organic system of ramps and rails, following advanced choreography but improvising unpredictably. In Fame you’re watching a whole universe, too, while Kehlmann goes around doing tricks. You never know what the next one’s going to be or how he’s going to use a pipe or a curb but you’re happily confident that it’s going to be rad.

There’s one part where Kehlmann does something unbecoming of a showman. It comes early in the book, in a chapter about Rolf the famous actor somehow transforming into an anonymous, shabby impersonator of himself. Rolf is with a woman who has just told him that maybe he should try impersonating someone else — that he’s not really a natural fit for Rolf.

Then: “His eyes slid to the mirror. There she was, and there he was, and suddenly he didn’t know anymore which side the originals were on and which side the reflections.”

My fellow Thirteen.org blogger Nick Sylvester wrote something about Young Jeezy a couple of years ago that has stuck with me. The post was about a song called “Bury Me a G,” in which Jeezy gets shot outside of a club, and in which you can hear — about three quarters into the song, as an interlude — the voice of a female newscaster describing the scene and saying in a stern, sad voice, that so far it is “unclear” whether Jeezy “was the suspect or the victim.”

Nick was really bothered by the line because:

It’s like, the suspect/victim thing is the only reason anything remotely morally difficult in rap is compelling at all to me. It’s just too big — too big and banal and clumsy a thing to just say, “It’s unclear whether he was the suspect or the victim.” I mean really now.

When Rolf looks in the mirror and has that thought about not knowing whether he’s the real thing or the reflection, Kehlmann is being artless the same way Jeezy was on “Bury Me a G.” Kehlmann’s subject in this book, his main preoccupation, is the difference between fiction and reality, and this line is an aberration from his otherwise funny and suggestive treatment of it.

It kind of ruined “Bury Me a G” for Nick, but it doesn’t ruin Fame, not by any means. If you like Donald Barthelme and you always favored the more advanced varieties of Legos, read it.