Book review / Bowled over and out

The Collector Collector by Tibor Fischer, Secker, pounds 12.99
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Being reviewed is a lucky dip for an author. One person's opinion is transmitted as a general cachet or black mark. In the past, Tibor Fischer has attracted the plaudits of such luminaries as Salman Rushdie, John Updike and A S Byatt. This time he's got me. Tough.

This preamble done, I can no longer delay my reluctant response to a fellow author: this book is truly terrible. Fischer's first novel, Under the Frog, was a justly acclaimed tragicomic vision of the Hungary of his parents' generation, a place of young men twisting in the gyre of an idiotic regime, culminating in the romantic and ill-fated rebellion of 1956. "As a Hungarian," a friend tells the hero of that book, Gyuri Fischer, "you should be prepared for the odd cataclysm."

His second book, The Thought Gang, shifted this cataclysmic and anarchic vision into a contemporary tale of a philosopher who prefers bank robbery to academia. At one point, a friend of the protagonist suggests he would be at his best if he was sent back to the era of the Greeks, whence he could "communicate to us via red figure Attic vases."

In The Collector Collector, this is precisely what happens. The protagonist, a Sumerian bowl, has been passed down over the ages, the perfect epitome of the "been it, seen it" syndrome. A great opportunity, you might think, to ruminate on the eternal foibles and follies of humanity.

But what happens? The eponymous bowl, in keeping with its sly origin as boozy philosopher Eddie Coffin of The Thought Gang, spends the bulk of the book involved with two stereotyped women. Rosa, the art expert, longs for a good man to love but keeps dating nerds and creeps; Nikki, a sluttish ex-prostitute, drops her knickers at the slightest pretext and does her best to destroy Rosa's life. Instead of eternal wisdom, the bowl appears to represent a kind of English football-hooligan laddishness, despite its detours into tales of past human inanities.

A Tiborian thought: Why are all the people who own a Sumerian bowl, through the centuries, such outright dickheads? At certain moments a coherent grotesquerie emerges, as when the bowl reflects, on eating, that "every creature on the planet is trying to persuade the rest of the planet into its stomach."

This is the Tiborian universe: a world of unmitigated exploitation, stupidity and mindless violence. The rot set in in The Thought Gang, which depended on the reader accepting that inflicting pain can be inherently funny. But that book had chutzpah, genuinely surreal moments, a proper zing and many other words beginning with Z. This one has a succession of naff characters, unbelievable events and an obsession with dicks, tits and various euphemisms for sex which might appear hilarious in a bar at one- thirty am.

I have no doubt at all that Tibor Fischer can write, conjure with words, play with language, make you turn the page. The question is, to what purpose? In Under the Frog, he wrote about things that mattered deeply: youth, desires, dreams and their destruction under the treads of tanks. He is not the first, nor the last author to fetishise violence in lieu of any other outlet for the expression of the malaise of our times - a deep-seated loss of faith in any values untainted by hypocrisy, selfishness and omnivorous greed. I just think it's zhlubish. Bring on the Thought without the Gangs.