Wunderkind Daniel Kehlmann currently holds the record for Germany’s bestselling novel, thanks to Measuring The World, his 2006 book about the friendship between a South American explorer and mathematician Carl Gauss. A short-story collection in all but name, Kehlmann’s disappointing follow-up, Fame: A Novel In Nine Episodes, tiptoes around similar themes of travel and its human implications.
Two writers and a movie star connect Kehlmann’s chapters, some of which also share the backdrops of mostly unnamed European cities. Actor Ralf Tanner, glimpsed on a poster in “Rosalie Goes Off To Die” and a brief magnet of suspicion in “Voices,” is the protagonist of “The Way Out,” in which he goes underground as an impersonator of himself, wooing women in bars and taking them back to a shabby rented room instead of his mansion. The Paulo Coelho-like mega-author Miguel Auristos Blanco, seen struggling with a particular fan letter in “Replying To The Abbess,” is constantly being read (or at least noticed) by other characters. Two stories, both titled “In Danger,” relate journeys undertaken by writer Leo Richter (well known for his “unpredictable shifts and swerves that were flourishes of empty virtuosity”) and his lover, a United Nations negotiator who first tries to protect him from her job, then has a change of heart.
Kehlmann’s games of identity displaced by time—as in “How I Lied And Died,” in which a cell-phone company middle-manager imagines that, rather than choose between mistress and wife, he will continue to live between them in two different cities forever—prove diverting only on the surface. Characters given memorable plights get dropped casually, and the individual episodes fail to cohere into a whole work, but remain too thin to stand on their own.
Fame aspires to the challenging Gabriel García Márquez short-story model of Strange Pilgrims and other collections, while taking more familiar form for Kehlmann’s many fans. But the forms frustrate the narrative and refuse to fit together, leaving Fame stranded in a kind of literary no-man’s land. Richter’s sensation of having been marooned in a series of unnamed Eastern European countries becomes an all-too-identifiable feeling.