Daniel Kehlmann achieved worldwide fame with his 2005 novel Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), so the title of his most recent book - Ruhm: Ein Roman in neun Geschichten (Fame: A Novel in Nine Stories) - is appropriate. In Ruhm, Kehlmann shifts his attention from the nature of genius in the 19th century to the challenges of fiction and identity - or, rather, the fiction of identity - in the 21st century.
The nine stories are all ingeniously interconnected. Most are centered around a famous writer, Leo Richter, who ruthlessly exploits the people in his life for his fiction. He is also ruthless with his fictional creations. In the story Rosalie geht sterben (Rosalie goes to die) Richter condemns his character to death at a Swiss suicide clinic, even as she pleads with him for a reprieve. Where does fiction end and reality begin? Richter explains in a later story:
Wir sind immer in Geschichten. [...] Geschichten in Geschichten in Geschichten. Man weiß nie, wo eine endet und eine andere beginnt ! In Wahrheit fließen alle ineinander. Nur in Büchern sind sie säuberlich getrennt.
We are always in stories. [...] Stories within stories within stories. One never knows where one ends and another begins. Actually, they all merge into one another. Only in books are they neatly separated.
And so Richter uses his lover Elisabeth, a woman he recently met who works for Doctors without Borders, to create his best fictional character Lara Gaspard, and then in a later story forces Elisabeth to confront her more beautiful, idealized self.
In the mechanized world of Ruhm, fiction has become more authentic than reality. In the funniest story, Ein Beitrag zur Debatte, a blogger on celebrity gossip Web sites - writing in obnoxious Denglish - expresses his desire to become a character in one of Richter's stories. Richter ignores him:
Ich hab für immer nuch mich. Immer bloss hier, auf dieser Seite, auf der andren: never. Keine andre Welt (...) Alles geht weiter, wie immerschon immer. In einer Geschichte, das weiss ich jetzt, werde ich nie sein.
Forever I will have only myself. Just this forever, on this side, never on the other. No other world. Everything will go on as it always has. I know now that I'll never be in a story.
Technology only contributes to the erosion of identity. In Ruhm, technology is destiny. In Osten, a woman writer forgets to pack her cell phone battery recharger on a nightmarish trip to a central Asia country. When her phone dies, so does all connection to her European identity The blogger in Ein Beitrag zur Debatte suffers an identity breakdown when he checks into a hotel where the Internet is "down" for days. In Stimmen a computer technician has a brush with fame after he is mistakenly assigned the cell phone number of a famous movie star. And in Wie ich log and starb a middle manager creates a world of deception - two separate lives for his two lovers - with text messages and mobile phone calls.
In the brave new world of Ruhm only one writer dares to confront the truth. In Antwort an die Äbtissin the Brazilian writer Miguel Auristos Blancos, whose New Age books promoting optimistic spiritualism are devoured around the world by adolescents and low-level office workers, realizes that every word he has published is a lie and contemplates taking his own life.
Ruhm is the product of a literary talent in command of his craft, but the book seems like a warm-up exercise of a virtuoso. Ruhm lacks the emotional power of another "novel in stories" - Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge (winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction).