Though at only 176 pages it might seem like a short novel, Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame is one of the more prophetic books that I have read in quite some time. And by prophetic, one could equally refer to the dual actions a of “describing the present” and “predicting the future.” Kehlmann deftly exposes our relationship with technology, its effects on our relationships with one another, and our desires for more out of life, be that a second life/chance or to live in storied infamy.
Fame is a “novel in nine episodes” that focuses on a handful of characters who are loosely related. In one of the stories, we have Ebling, a computer tech who reluctantly purchases a cell phone that is accidentally assigned someone else’s number, Ralf Tanner, a famous actor. Longing for more out of life, Ebling gradually takes Ralf’s phone calls and takes over his life. As a result, the real Ralf fades into obscurity. Later in the novel we meet the employee at the cell phone provider whose intensifying, distracting affair with his mistress might have led to the mistake that resulted in two cell phones having the same phone number.
In another story, Leo Richter is a famous writer who writes about the ongoing death of culture and the unification of society through technology. He’s also something of a neurotic. He dates Elisabeth, a doctor who works in war-torn areas and is more afraid of becoming one of Leo’s characters than being harmed in her work. Refusing to visit a central Asian country on a writer’s junket, Leo sends another author, Maria Rubinstein, in his place. After a miserable trip, she is accidentally left behind and, because her name was never added to the list of visiting journalists and writers, the authorities refuse to help her, stubbornly insisting that she is in the country illegally. She is stranded, has no local currency, doesn’t speak the language, and cannot contact her husband because her cell phone is dying.
Rosalie is an older woman dying of cancer who decides to pursue assisted suicide at a clinic in Switzerland. As her story progresses, we realize that she is a character in a novel who begins to argue with its author when she realizes that he could simply re-write her story and she wouldn’t have to die…a la Stranger Than Fiction. She is unable to see, however, that even in her fictional world, her…and the author’s…decisions would result in some of the very same tragic results that she is trying to resist.
One of the many strengths of Kehlmann’s work is the sense of pathos and impending doom that characterizes almost every story. In most of them, especially Ebling/Ralf’s and Maria’s stories, the very technology that should unite us unlike ever before distances us and breaks down relationships in ways previously unimaginable (and perhaps only apparent to Kehlmann at the moment). Kehlmann writes, “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” (148).
These stories are also tied together by the writer Miguel Auristos Blanco, a character in Kehlmann’s novel, whose books appear as backdrops or objects of appreciation across the various stories. Described as “the writer venerated by half the planet and mildly despised by the other, author of books on serenity, inner grace, and the wandering journey in quest of the meaning of life” (103). He undergoes something of a theological/existential crises that comes to fruition in a letter to an abbess who had previously written him a letter questioning his views on theodicy. I am reminded of Nick Cave’s angry, pleading song, “We Call Upon the Author to Explain.” Indeed, in Kehlmann’s novel, the writer Blanco, whose spiritual, inspirational books seem to imply the existence of said author, questions and ultimately rejects his beliefs his letter to the abbess. Blanco writes, “God cannot be justified, life is atrocious, its beauty amoral, even peace is filled with crimes, and no matter whether he exists or not–I’ve never made up my mind about that–I have no doubt that my miserable death will evoke no more pity in Him than the deaths of my children or, some day may it be long distant, Reverend Mothers, yours. […There] are no grounds for hope, and even if God’s existence were to be justified by something other than His flagrant absence, every intelligent argument would still pale before the scale of suffering in the world, before the very fact that suffering exists” (110). Life in Kehlmann’s “fictional” world is arbitrary to an almost depressing degree, and yet to gloss over the potential parallels in our own experiences by referring to an omniscient Deity who has a plan for us (whether we know it or not) is to provide an answer that simply cannot hold water when the floods come and to refuse moments of genuine fear, anger, and grief.
Kehlmann’s novel touches on so many other contemporary, yet timeless, themes, particularly our desires to be known and the ways in which we now increasingly turn to digital social networks and Internet to find this fame. Though his novel is entitled Fame, it is full of characters who are just as eager to get out of the spotlight as there are those who want to bathe in it.