From German author Kehlmann (Me and Kaminski, 2008, etc.), nine interconnected stories that cleverly explore the seductive nature of fame—and fiction’s role in creating it.
Notoriety as both a blessing and (more often) a curse is the thread holding together the disparate episodes in this darkly comic tour de force, beginning with the opener, “Voices.” In it, a middle-aged technician buys a cell phone and is secretly thrilled to intercept the calls intended for another man, one leading a considerably more exciting life. German movie star Ralf Tanner, on the other hand, longs for obscurity, and finds giving up his identity far easier than he would have expected, by becoming his own impersonator. Gutsy Elisabeth, a physician for Doctors Without Borders, is dismayed at the thought that her new lover, the neurotic writer Leo Richter, will use her experiences in his work. Leo, an apparent stand-in for the author himself, is in turn accosted in a hotel by an unkempt young man desperate to be a story subject. The fan later posts the details of their awkward encounter on a celebrity blog. A popular mystery writer who fills in for Richter on a press junket becomes trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare in a Central Asian post-Soviet hellhole where no one knows her. And in “Rosalie Goes Off to Die,” an elderly woman en route to a Swiss euthanasia clinic bargains not with God, but with her actual creator, the writer, to intercede on her behalf. The wheels-within-wheels keep spinning as more implausible connections are made, culminating in a surprise ending that we should have seen all along. Although there is a certain gleeful cruelty to the way Kehlmann treats many of his characters, he never spares himself. But when he describes Richter’s talent as “empty virtuosity,” one wonders who the joke is really on. Empty, he’s not.
A brazen take on the modern yearning for recognition. Kehlmann is a writer worth reading.