Kehlman’s previous novel ‘Measuring the World’ was straightforward historical fiction. It’s a pared down affair, that follows the lives of two of Germany’s greatest scientists. A masterclass in characterisation and ideas, it’s a brilliant read. So, it was with great excitement that I picked up ‘Fame’. As I stated in my review of ‘Storm at the Door’, reading new books written by favourite authors is not without its pitfalls. Fame’s pit has a rather large spike in it. It’s not a novel.
OK, you could argue all year about what exactly constitutes a novel, but I would say Fame is a series of interlinking short stories. Amazon gives it the subtitle, ‘A novel in nine episodes’, which curiously the book itself does not. So if, like me, you were expecting a straightforward narrative, as found in Measuring the World, you need to adjust your expectations. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did, but reading interconnected stories is a wholly different experience to reading a more traditional narrative. The blurb on the back cover was particularly misleading (at least it misled me). It implies that all the events outlined happen to the same character, as part of a single narrative, but this is not the case. It took me a while to realise that this was a novel without a beginning, middle and end. As a result, I had to alter my expectations part-way through reading, which I think adversely affected my enjoyment of the book.
Fame does share some common ground with ‘Measuring the World’. Both books are concerned with the way we view the world. Here the stories are more concerned with instant communication and our interconnected world; the fact that it is rare to be completely alone. They are all set in the twenty-first century. The opening story follows a man who has a new mobile phone. Somehow he has been given the phone number of a famous film star. At first he is annoyed by this, but then gradually he realises, the film star IS only a voice on the phone to some of the people ringing. He starts to impersonate the star, with consequences for both men. Later stories feature the film star, who likes the room to manoeuvre his phone doppelgänger has given him, and an employee of the phone company responsible for the error.
The structure of Fame reminded me of David Mitchell’s ‘Ghostwritten’. Kehlman examines how our lives run parallel to one another, and how a small incidental interaction in one life, may have far reaching consequences for another. The true impact of an individual’s decision may never be truly felt for many years afterwards. In this way it reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s prizewinning ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’.
Many of Fame’s episodes are about writers. All of the stories feature books by a famous (fictional) South American self-help author. The self-help author himself is given one of the book’s funniest chapters, in which Kehlman skewers the fallacy of spiritual enlightenment books. There is also a neurotic novelist, who can’t stand his fans, who may be modelled on Kehlman himself. We see his personal life, but in one story he interacts directly with his characters. Since these fictional characters touch on lives of characters in the other stories, the exact location of the boundary between fiction and the real-world becomes blurred. This idea of nested realities is similarly explored by David Mitchell in ‘Cloud Atlas’.
My favourite story involves a female crime fiction writer, who goes on a cultural exchange to an unnamed Central Asian country. She becomes separated from the rest of the party, and with a sketchy mobile phone signal, finds herself alone and unknown. It raises questions about personality; is it an external or internal concept? If nobody knows your story, are you still the same person? Kehlman’s tales give credence to Mike Carey’s assertion (in his incomparable ‘Unwritten’ stories) that ‘nothing matters more than the stories we tell ourselves.’ To a greater or lesser extent, the persona we present to the world is a fiction, and none more so than those who are famous.
‘Fame’ is short and easy to read. Its nine episodes won’t be to everybody’s taste; there is very little descriptive meat on the bones of each story. They each form part of philosophical framework that questions what personality means in the age of social media. Each story is enjoyable. They are all thought-provoking and often funny, but overall I felt ‘Fame’ lacked any unifying coherence. This is an interesting and diverting read, recommended for fans of reality bending self-referencing short stories, but it doesn’t feel complete. Though I enjoyed reading Fame, and would recommend it, if you haven’t read the other titles I mention in this review, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest you read those first.