cover image The Trick of It

The Trick of It

Michael Frayn. Viking Books, $17.95 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-670-82985-9

As wickedly funny as it is intelligent and perceptive, this first work of fiction in 16 years by the British playwright ( Noises Off ; The Benefactors ) and novelist ( Sweet Dreams ) is a reader's delight. In a series of letters to a colleague in Australia, the nameless narrator, a literary critic at a provincial British university, gradually unfolds the story of his marriage--a dream come true that has turned into a nightmare. Having based his reputation on his literary criticism of the works of the novelist JL, the narrator invites her to speak to his students. She comes; he falls in love but bumbles the aftermath of their coupling; he pursues her nonetheless; they marry. But the union of writer and critic is not ideal. With impeccable timing, Frayn gradually reveals the academic's conundrum: though his wife is colorless and dull in person, she has the trick of turning life into eventful fiction, while he, poor man, can neither influence what she writes (he tries) nor write as well--in fact, write at all (he tries that too). Mordantly witty, the letters disclose first the writer's glee at having ``cornered the market, as it were,'' then his desperation: he loses his job since it's unseemly that ``a husband expound his own wife.'' The author has the trick his protagonist lacks: he can take a serious theme, spin it out into deliciously calibrated comedy, then darken it with a touch of rue. The poignant ending adds perfection to this flawless comedy of manners. First serial to the New Yorker. (Mar.)