Saturday, January 17, 2004


By Tibor Fischer

Counterpoint, $23, 251 pages

Tibor Fischer, an English novelist of Hungarian descent, courted controversy a few months ago when he wrote a damning review of Martin Amis’ novel “Yellow Dog.” In a British newspaper, Mr. Fischer alleged that Mr. Amis’ new book is bad — so bad it’s like catching one’s uncle in an act of public indecency. Such an egregious insult naturally begs the question: But is Mr. Fischer any better?

Clearly it’s a question Mr. Fischer wants us to ask, for as he went on to note in the review, he too has a new novel in bookstores — published in Britain, no less, on the same day as “Yellow Dog.”

“Voyage to the End of the Room” revolves around a young London woman named Oceane. As we learn in the book’s opening pages, Oceane has stumbled into some life-altering good luck. Through a flukey chain of events, she became wealthy in a single afternoon; wealthy enough, at least, to live very comfortably in a modest neighborhood and still have plenty of money in the bank.

Oceane also does freelance graphic-design work, so she continues to earn an income without the inconvenience of leaving home. Ever. Why should she venture outside? “It numbs you, it stuffs you like a turkey with everyday nonsense: hundreds of mundanities clog, fog and then stop your mind.”

For diversion, however, she commissions a travel agent to arrange dinner-party “vacations” in her house, at which she can admire the mock skyline of a foreign capital — Helsinki, for instance — while sampling reindeer tartare and chatting with native Finns.

Oceane may be housebound, but Mr. Fischer’s narrative isn’t. From South London the story jumps to Barcelona, where a decade ago Oceane, aspiring to a career as a professional dancer, instead settled for a well-paid job at a sex club.

The on-stage “performances” of Oceane and her colleagues are described for the most part obliquely, and with the crackling verbal wit that has become a hallmark of Mr. Fischer’s prose. “Climactics” is the term the author uses of the club’s activities; “a real xenotangle” is how he characterizes the performers, who hail from all over Europe. Of the female performers, only one really stands out:

“Then, of course, there was the cupola herself … Heidi (Belgian-Argentinian cultivar, blonde, perfect, inexhaustibly filthy). Loquacious men would be limited to a grunt and nod in her presence, because of the imaginings. Heidi didn’t even have to do anything, just be herself; on a stage full of naked women she was the only one who looked naked … Backstage, you could hear the phut of men in flames and lives being one-eightied. I think her secret was her eyebrows …”

Life at the club soon becomes a cycle of dope-smoking sessions and improbable tragedies, such as a cow falling from the sky and killing one of the performers. Here Mr. Fischer falls prey to the usual excesses of postmodern fiction. Zany minor characters proliferate, only to disappear without leaving an impression (except to confuse the reader). And although the disasters at the club first seem amusingly over-the-top, the contrived absurdism grows tedious.

After plowing through digressions on exploding whales, psychic dogs and the like, readers may feel they have indulged Mr. Fischer long enough. But if they persevere, they’ll find that “Voyage” is less aimless, and more earnest than they may have suspected.

In the final third of the novel, Mr. Fischer shifts his focus to a character named Audley, a debt collector in the pay of the aptly named Dun Waitin agency. A melancholy chap from a place called Sunk Island, Audley is hired by Oceane to investigate an old boyfriend’s mysterious death. Audley’s hard-luck stories — nearly being killed by his own comrades as a mercenary in Yugoslavia, getting mugged by a retiree — are both hilarious and affecting, unlike the catastrophes in Barcelona.

And the dismal pattern of Audley’s life contrasts sharply with Oceane’s easy good fortune, which brings us to Mr. Fischer’s metaphysical preoccupation — the big F, Fate.

His characters obsess over Fate and the futility of battling against it. One performer at the club, Vlan, reads the same yellowed newspaper day after day, “to remind myself that nothing happens.” Audley concludes despairingly that “No matter what I do, I can’t beat the pattern. I don’t even have to leave home anymore. It rolls up on the doorstep.” Oceane, on the other hand, can’t seem to evade her spectacular luck. Even missing a flight turns out to be charmed when the plane crashes.

Mr. Fischer’s philosophical bent and gratifyingly on-target social satire set him apart from the crowd of trendy young novelists. I suspect that he’s a satirist at heart, who would have been equally at home in the 18th century assailing his enemies in heroic couplets.

You might expect Mr. Fischer’s postmodern world to be a morass of relativism. Instead, Oceane ruthlessly, wonderfully passes judgment on her inferior fellow human beings. Many of her acquaintances she dismisses as “failurists,” “disastros.” She can spot a self-proclaimed poet or “film producer” (read: a loser desperate to impress women) from miles away.

Nor can she abide the whining of a fellow dancer in Barcelona, Constance, who scams unemployment benefits from the government yet complains about politicians being “greedy.” As Oceane ironically observes, “For someone with a string of properties, whose only worry was which thong to put on in the morning, she was highly furious.”

The sympathetic Oceane eventually figures out why other people’s hypocrisy and callousness drive her round the bend. “I was beginning to discover I wasn’t like most people: I had feelings.” These she attributes to her unconventional upbringing. “I got on with my parents very well,” she remembers. “It took me a long time to notice that this was quite unusual. First of all having parents, as opposed to one parent and someone else passing through … They never embarrassed me … They looked after me with only a few skirmishes over discipline. We were freaks.”

So it’s not agoraphobia that keeps Oceane in her flat, it’s the curse of adulthood: being let down by others over and over again. But will she brave the degradations of Outside before the book’s conclusion?

Mr. Fischer has yet to match the achievement of his debut novel, the Booker Prize-nominated “Under the Frog,” or of 1994’s marvelous “The Thought Gang.” Nevertheless, “Voyage to the End of the Room” is a fiercely clever and entertaining black comedy. Martin Amis’ reputation will survive intact, but Mr. Fischer at least proves that his comic bite lives up to his bark.

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