Monday, April 13, 2009

The Tin Men (book)

by Michael Frayn

The Tin Men It's always fun to discover a new author.  It's even better when that author goes on to bigger and better things.  For me, one of those authors was Michael Frayn.

I came across The Tin Men when it first came out.  Frayn had been a newspaper columnist when he started writing novels, and The Tin Men is a memorable debut.

It's a story about the denizens of the William Morris Institute of Automation Research, a British think tank trying to develop robots and filled with bizarre characters and schemes.

For instance, Macintosh is trying to create robots with a moral sense. He figured the simplest solution was to put the robot on a sinking raft with something or someone else and set up its programming so it will sacrifice itself to save another.  It wasn't easy: at first the robot would throw itself overboard no matter what was on the raft.  Then he programmed it to sacrifice itself only for an organism more intelligent than itself.  So if there were a person, it would calculate the size of the person's brain.

Goldwasser was inventing newspaper headlines that were completely meaningless, but which everyone recognizes ("Strike Threat Probe"). Everyone had their own mania, and when it's announced that the Queen will be visiting, all sorts of madness erupts.

But, for me, the best sections describe Hugh Rowe, who wants to be a novelist.  He tries through unconventional methods.  For instance, he writes the reviews first, hoping to see what the book is about.  When he gets down to writing, he spends the first chapter describing characters down to the finest, most ridiculous detail ("There were four finger and a thumb on each hand") and worrying about the details he left out (the number of buttons on the man's shirt, the size of his shoes, etc.).

The next of Rowe's chapters is a hilarious psychological mishmash ("Anna plainly knew that Nunopolis understood her feelings about Fiddlingchild, and she knew too that Nina knew she knew about Nunopolis's knowledge.")  The third chapter is a breezy slangy bit of jazz-tinged gibberish that finally has Rowe giving up the writing altogether.

Yet there is a moment in the novel where Rowe is asked to describe what he wants to write.  Frayn describes a very evocative scene, but when Rowe tries to talk about it, he cannot make it work like it did in his mind, and the questions by the person asking about it make the whole thing seem trivial.  That is, in many ways, the dilemma of every writer:  translating what's in your mind onto the page, and Frayn encapsulates it quite accurately.

The book did OK (though better in the UK than in the US), and Frayn went on to bigger things.  He switched to writing plays.  Noises Off was a big success, and he eventually won all sorts of Best Play awards for Copenhagen.

But even from the beginning, you could see he would be a big talent.  The Tin Men is a very funny book with some interesting depth to it. I can't say that you could see the writer who wrote Copenhagen, but there are certainly signs that Frayn could go on to something much bigger.

1 comment:

KIKAREN said...

Like you I bought it when it came out [in 1965]; in fact I still have that first edition. I always thought it the funniest book I had ever read and re-reading it now, I still find it pretty amusing. For me, the newspaper stuff was the funniest section. Now that I am older, there are parts that are not so witty as I remember them: Nunn isn’t at all the amusing character that I recall.
The funniest book now is Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills. If you haven’t read it then you must: some idiot on Amazon has given it one star adding that he threw in the towel before the end. But the punchline to the whole narrative is on the second last page so for heavens sake stick with it.