Fame by Daniel Kehlmann

Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes by Daniel Kehlmann is a switch from the types of books I have been reading lately (mostly YA fantasy fiction and mystery). As the title indicates, it is a novel weaved together through a collection of nine stories.  It is also translated from German.

I don’t like to be pigeonholed in my reading and I find it enjoyable to occasionally read something very different from your normal routine. Fame fit the bill. Plus, it is a quick read – which is a bonus – and it grabbed my attention at the book store.

Here is the book flap blurb that intrigued me:

Imagine being famous. Being recognized on the street, adored by people who have never even met you, known the world over. Wouldn’t that be great?

But what if, one day, you got stuck in a country where celebrity means nothing, where no one spoke your language and you didn’t speak theirs, where no one knew your face (no book jackets, no TV) and you had no way of calling home? How would your fame help you then?

What if someone got hold of your cell phone? What if they spoke to your girlfriends, your agent, your director, and started making decisions for you? And worse, what if no one believed you were you anymore? When you saw a look-alike acting your roles for you, what would you do?

And what if one day you realized your magnum opus, like everything else you’d ever written, was a total waste of time, empty nonsense? What would you do next? Would your audience of seven million people keep you going? Or would you lose the capacity to keep on doing it?

It turned out to be an enjoyable and interesting experiment. You can argue whether the collection of stories really adds up to a novel or whether some of the stories are perhaps a bit too clever but I found them entertaining and even thought provoking.

The stories range from dark humor and almost horror to post-modern meditations on identity and stories. And this adds to the enjoyment I think. There is enough overlapping of characters and events that you feel the connection but enough differing perspectives and styles that it doesn’t become monotonous or stale.

Kehlmann dramatizes the fact that identity, and extra-surreal aspect of that which is fame, is even more fluid in our electronic age. Celebrity culture magnifies a world in which so much of what we think of as a person’s indentity is made up of pixels online and images on TV and film. Is reality even real?

Daniel Kehlmann at the Leipzig Book Fair.
Image via Wikipedia

Many of the stories play on fears of who identity can be fragile. The first story focuses on a character who finally breaks down and gets a cell phone but it turns out his number very obviously belonged to someone else. And seeking to add something to his own life he begins to enter into the life of this unknown person by interacting with the callers to his cell phone (mistress, agent, business partner, etc.). In a later story we find out the consequences of this meddling.

In another story, an author ends up trapped in the far east after agreeing to take a fellow author’s place on a junket. The trip turns into a Third World nightmare and soon the author is disconnected from anyone who can help her: no cell phone, doesn’t speak the language, authorities don’t have her name on the list because she is a last minute substitute, etc. She is caught between worlds as it were and unable to prove who she is – this despite being a famous author (tragically her books are in stores but don’t have cover photos).

In other stories, the character want to break out of the confines of fiction or jump into it. One famous character begs an author to spare her the fate the story demands. In another, a women becomes involved with an author while seeking, unsuccessfully, not to be become a part of his fiction. In one of the more humourous stories a character whose life plays out mostly online – as his offline world is depressing and ugly – tries to use a chance encounter with an author to find immortality in his fiction; with tragic results.

I will admit I didn’t think too deeply about the deeper meaning as I read (clearly Kehlmann has thoughts about celebrity culture as well as the nature of stories and language in our lives). Mostly, I enjoyed the writing, the cleverness and the humor.

Kehlmann himself is a bit of a celebrity writer so he brings that additional ironic twist to the project.

So whether you are a fan of Kehlmann, interested in the themes of identity, language and fame, or, like me, just looking for something a little different I think you will enjoy Fame. It is a quick and engaging read and one that would probably bear re-reading (so as to better capture the interconnections and ideas).

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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