Don't Read This Book If You're Stupid
Tibor Fischer Secker & Warburg, 224pp, £10
Tibor Fischer is the Ali G of literature: the lunatic questions of reality he asks with sober mien turn out to be rather sensible compared with the deranged answers he receives. As a writer, he runs free of the literary pack, which is mightily refreshing. As a humorist (the word is too shallow and slick for him), his attraction is that he does not give us this day our improving medicine in satirical form. Nor are his satirical negations stagily nihilistic, and there is genuine darkness beneath what can sometimes seem a fashionably matt black surface. In these and other senses there is something un-English about him - a goofy thing to say of a man of Hungarian stock born in Stockport, yet a pertinent one: a lesser writer than Fischer would have tamed his outre Magyar instincts, sobered up and written about the joys and dissatisfactions of our lives, like a decent British citizen, modulating his underground humour into an amiable quirkiness.
His one-liners and way-outness can sound transatlantic, but to get to the root of him you have to look east as well as west: Gogol and Bulgakov were way-out, too, and it is from that realistically surreal tradition that Fischer ultimately hails. This makes him a compulsive runner of risks, a writer who could easily develop a blander style of humour that would enjoy wide appeal; but he prefers to go his own way. Weirdly normal people will find him weird, while the zany-minded will not necessarily warm to him, because his zaniness does not come in the accustomed form. In his last book, The Collector Collector, the narrator was an antique vase.
This collection of short stories (some reprinted from magazines, some new) is proof of his range. His imagination can still abscond with him when he is not looking, but here, we are reminded that he is in ultimate control. Just as the best abstract or conceptual artists were frequently those who could turn their hand to figurative painting, should they choose, so Fischer has a choice of literary voices. The stories run the gamut from the naturalistic to the passing strange, from the chilling flat reportage of "Ice Tonight in the Hearts of Young Visitors", in which a pit of decomposing bodies is dug up in Timisoara during the anti-Ceausescu insurrection, to pieces that are in various degrees of detachment from the wall.
Most terminally detached are "Bookcruncher", where the hero sets out to read every book ever written, and "Portrait of the Artist as a Foaming Deathmonger", in which it is related how the "grabby" was invented. The humour, though wild, is not wanton, and in this instance recalls Flaubert's dictionary of received ideas.
Other tales fall somewhere in between. In "We Ate the Chef", Jim, a desperate Londoner, flees to the Cote d'Azur for sun, only to fall among "New Russian" girls, a category of womanhood all by itself, whose amoral vacuity Fischer captures well. "Then They Say You're Drunk" is seriously funny about life in Brixton because it is seriously unsentimental. When an old black man spits at the hero, Guy, he walks on: "If you stopped for everyone abusing you or gobbing at you, you'd never get to where you were going." The tears of the clown are a perfect Fischer theme, well exploited in the tale of Miranda, the failed stand-up comic in "I Like Being Killed". This is a story whose pathos, had it been po-facedly told, would have been unbearable in the bad sense.
Hearing all these voices speaking in such different tones, one wonders sometimes whether Fischer may not be searching for perfect pitch. He has insisted that he writes comic short stories because he likes to and because they are a valid form. Obviously they are, and he does them well, but one can imagine a Fischer novel that would be a perfect blend of his various styles. We also know he has an eye for big themes - in his second novel, The Thought Gang, a philosophy professor gives up the search for knowledge in favour of robbing banks - as powerful a metaphor of the times as you could wish for (and which, incidentally, would make a superb black comedy film). Perhaps the best tribute to Fischer is that he is one of the handful of authors of whom one asks in hopeful anticipation what he or she is going to do next.
George Walden's "The New Elite" will be published in September