Sam Leith

The Agoraphobe Within

Voyage To The End of the Room


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‘TIBOR FISCHER’ ACCORDING to a quote on the cover of his latest book, ‘is a pyrotechnic craftsman.’ Does he make fireworks? No, he doesn’t. He makes novels – morose, high-handed, glancingly philosophical comic novels. I wouldn’t let him anywhere near a firework, particularly not with children around, but he can be trusted with a novel.

Fischer’s last book – a collection of short stories; he can be trusted with those, too – was called Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid. That captures the tone. Fischer’s voice is infuriatingly arrogant. You, the reader, have a desire to hit him in the face with a bat. The irritating thing is that Fischer is, on average, between 80 and 90 per cent as good as he seems to think he is; and that’s very good indeed.

He seldom if ever writes jokes: what makes him funny is his tone of voice, which – ventriloquised though it may be – almost always emerges blackly baleful. He simply allows himself to be angry on the page, and it is the range and ferocity of his rage that make his books exhilarating. His absurdities are venomous rather than whimsical.

Few writers address with such consistent application the feeling, sometimes inescapable, that the world is a conspiracy (or, properly, a cock-up) of hateful, selfish, mouth-breathing incompetents who are too stupid even to realise how hateful and selfish thev are.

The major running gags in this ndvel are the failure of the police to answer the phone, and the corruption and venality of local council officials, specifically those in Lambeth. At every turn we meet Lambeth councillors on expensive holidays, protesting to all they encounter that they are unfairly stereotyped as corrupt, before offering their interlocutors cheerless threesomes with them and ‘the wife’. Other, similarly downbeat themes include the nastiness of beggars, addicts, petty crime and junk mail.

The protagonist of Voyage to the End of the Room, accordingly, has made the only sensible decision left open to someone finding herself in such a world. She does not leave her house.

Oceane is a retired dancer. who lives in a leasa antsounding flat in Lambeth, well appointed in ierms of books, videos, CDs and so forth. What need to go out? Having got rich by a stupid accident, her chief indulgence with regard to the outside world is hosting occasional themed dinner parties, for which a contact who serves as a sort of virtual travel agent arranges to bring, say,’Finland to her living room for a night.

The plot, too, is somewhat virtual. Fischer’s method is digressive and meandering. It doesn’t really matter, in his absurdist universe, what happens. If I had to write it down from memory, it would be a bit like this. Reclusive woman introduces herself. Debt collector arrives at reclusive woman’s house in error. They make friends. Reclusive woman reminisces at length to the reader about her time working at a sex club in Barcelona. Debt collector tells reclusive woman a little about his childhood and a lot about his brief and calamitous career as a mercenarv in Yugoslavia. She receives a letter from an old boyfi-idnd. She dispatches debt collector, with earpiece and tiny camera linked remotely into her computer, into the world to try to solve a mystery mentioned in the letter. And so on.

I’ve only just finished the book and I’ve already forgotten how the plot resolves itself. ‘As an afterthought’, is the only answer that springs to mind. But is it funny and engaging? And is it written with wit, brio and fierce intelligence? Hell, yes. And, from under the great weight of cynicism, there does escape the tiniest bat-squeak of compassion.

My suspicion is this: Fischer’s remorseless disdain is that of the cynic as disappointed idealist. When we see, amid a rack of home-made greetings cards, one which says ‘Depression: the endlessly fascinating hobby that’s easy on your pocket’, I think we are earnestly intended to wish there were a more expensive hobby available. Of one incidental character, who is unable to escape from the memory of a past love affair, Oceane says: ‘Hamish reminded me of someone bashing a vending machine in a furious attempt to retrieve unretrievable change.’ That’s a moment of the bathetic sublime. ‘You hear there’s no such thing as love,’ Hamish tells Oceane. ‘Unfortunately, there is.’ Quite so.

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