Voyage to the End of the Room by Tibor Fischer

Sexual magnetism and ostrich-flavour crisps

Robert Hanks
Thursday 11 September 2003 00:00

Whatever effect Tibor Fischer's trashing of Martin Amis has had on its subject, it has provided an awkward context for writing about his own new novel. Fischer's invective on Yellow Dog - not-knowing-where-to-look bad, shoot me if I ever produce anything like this - has raised the stakes. Will editors now settle for milksop phraseology like "disappointing", "mildly tedious" and "has one or two amusing moments"? But that is what Voyage to the End of the Room demands.

The book is narrated mainly by Oceane, a computer graphics designer and former dancer who lives in a flat in London and has, fortuitously, made enough money never to have to leave it. Instead the world comes to her, through her collections of CDs and videos, her web connection, and her travel agent, Garba, who hires foreign chefs and tourists to re-create a typical evening out in, say, Helsinki.

The outside world intrudes into her controlled life, first in the shape of Audley, a debt collector looking for a previous occupant of Oceane's flat; then through a letter from Walter, a former lover whom Oceane believed dead. This prompts a long flashback to a period when Oceane and Walter both performed in a sex club in Barcelona. Audley contributes his own flashback to time spent as an unsuccessful mercenary in former Yugoslavia. On Oceane's behalf, he follows Walter's trail to Micronesia. It all ends on an inconclusive note; Oceane leaves her flat, apparently with the intention of looking after the dispirited Audley.

In his novels Under the Frog and The Collector Collector, a jumpy narrative structure suited Fischer's inventiveness and energy. But here, the outrageous coincidences and bizarre juxtapositions which riddle the plot simply aren't weird enough. The shape-changing, sentient pot that narrated The Collector Collector: now, that was freaky. By comparison, the stripper who can bring down a helicopter with sheer sexual magnetism, the accident-prone debt collector with a brother called Kold Hard Kash, the psychopath who lives on an aircraft carrier and only eats ostrich-flavour crisps... These strike me as implausible without being especially interesting.

The other thing I have enjoyed in Fischer's work is his way with the English language. He approaches it like somebody meeting it for first time, testing and inverting clichés, promiscuously coining new words or giving old ones excitingly fresh contexts. It is surely not irrelevant that, although born in Stockport, he has Hungarian parents.

This time around, though, it all becomes rather monotonous. There is hardly any modulation of tone, the characters all sound the same, and again and again Fischer strives for the gnomic and manages only the banal: "For all of us, the smallest thing can store unimaginable multitudes"; and, in a clinching sentence, "Home can never be a place, only a person."

I suppose I could work up some indignation about all this. How about, "I wouldn't even use this book to wipe my arse if I had dysentery"? Does that get the tone? What about the plain truth: Tibor Fischer has produced an uncharacteristically dull book? You can probably find something better to read.

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