Daniel Kehlmann’s new book of short stories, Fame, might also be entitled The Price of Fame. Celebrated, at the age of 31, for his novel Measuring the World, Kehlmann’s latest book of episodes—ahem—short stories focuses on the murky delineation between the technologies that help us live our lives and actually living our own lives. I presume that the fodder these technologies provide is going to usher in a new movement in literature whether we like it or not. Although these stories are peppered with irony, surrealism and humor, they may have been more developed had the author been unknown or, at least, lesser known.
Meta-fiction gets fair play in much of the stories; Kehlmann refers to himself as the author who can change her destiny towards the end of his most powerful story, “Rosalie Goes Off to Die.” There’s also “A Contribution to the Debate,” in which a computer geek runs into a famous author, Leo Richter, and attempts to find a way into his stories:
I had to talk to him. That was it: talk to him, admit everything exactly the way it happened, the way I’ve just told you now. Didn’t matter what he did next, he wouldn’t be able to resist it, because it was the real story. My entry into fiction. Right now, at breakfast.
The geek is infatuated with Lara Gaspard, a character in Richter’s novels. In this same story, Kehlmann employs a techno-chat room style of prose with truncated sentences and abbreviated thoughts. And even though through most of the story this style enhances the pathos of the narrator, there are times when it becomes lazy writing:
Then both of us silent for a time. He smoked, I smoked and the rain did its raining thing.
On the surface, this is an entertaining collection of Kehlmann’s inventive takes on modern culture: because of a cell phone number mix-up, man is thought to be somebody else, an actor takes to impersonating himself at night only to have his identity stolen by another impersonator of him, a writer takes the place of another writer at a conference and she is lead into a spiraling descent. The writer—Leo Richter—and the actor—Ralf Tanner—show up in some form in many of the stories. But the interlinking people and objects in these stories becomes predictable and leave the reader a bit bored, like listening to a comic pound a joke into the ground. He wrings the concept of identity in the modern world to the last drop.
What is frustrating is that Kehlmann invents a concept and instead of delving into the characters, it feels as if he just stuck a plot and some semi-developed characters around it. So, yes, these stories are creative, but are they worthwhile? Perhaps if he weren’t so seemingly impressed with his own ability to mock the world in which we live, mock his own participation and mock the reader, it would feel less of a one-noter and more like a nuanced orchestral piece.
Carol Brown Janeway, who also translated Measuring the World, does an adequate job with the translation. There are times when prose feels outdated or uneven, but it is not enough to distract the reader. To her credit, translating a story written in the style of a chatroom is a challenge and she impresses with her skill.
Fame is a book of episodic stories for the moment and for our ever-present social networking culture; however, one wishes that Kehlmann might have taken advantage of this opportunity to create stories that last longer than a simple episode. With our increasing dependence on modern technology, Kehlmann delivers a status update to be read, laughed about, and then forgotten.