Voyage to the End of the Room by Tibor Fischer
Too Beautiful for You by Rod Liddle

11/10/03, The Times

Perhaps no other word in the changing history of genres has seen a more downward migration than the term ‘comedy’. It embraces As You Like It on one end of the spectrum and Dumb and Dumber at the other. It moves from showing us how we live, how we love, what we leave behind when we die, on one hand, to making your average punter bellow out a few laughs; comedy as mimesis and comedy as jokes. Because the real thing is such a fiendishly difficult mode to pull off, contemporary notions of comedy have come mostly to rest on the latter definition: jokes are the perfect surrogate for a soundbite culture that is largely ignorant of both the comic mode and its evolution. It would be comforting to believe that Tibor Fischer’s latest offering, Voyage to the End of the Room, falls between two stools, but nothing can stave off the disappointment that comes with reading 250 pages of overextended jocular riffing, pointless and directionless, from the writer who gave us the manically and outrageously original gems, The Thought Gang and The Collector Collector.

Oceane, rich by a random blip in the normal flow of events, has stopped going out of her South London flat altogether; instead, she has the world brought to her by internet, satellite link-up, even tourists visiting London. All this changes when she receives a letter from her ex, Walter, dead for nearly a decade. Oceane met Walter when she was working for a sex club called Babylon in Barcelona. She employs Audley from the Dun Waitin (geddit?) debt-collecting agency to go look for the last letter from Walter which promises to explain a series of mysterious deaths in Babylon while Oceane was working there nearly ten years ago. It is not so much the wispiness of the plot than its purposelessness that lets the book down: it seems the whole story has been invented after the jokes and the wisecracks in a kind of staccato scrambling for a peg to hang them on.

The comic energy and invention don’t disappoint: the jokes fizz, crackle and pop, the characters form a gallery of rogues, lunatics and freaks, the situations are bizzare and effervescent, but this remains a stubbornly minor fireworks display and, what’s more dismaying, one without an occasion, so what’s left behind is not the retinal after-image but a sense of waste: so much effort to what purpose? For once, the parts are greater than their sum, and together they don’t sing in harmonious, zany glee like Fischer’s earlier works. For all its sly writing back to Huysmans, Defoe and Stevenson, and for all the clever deconstruction of its own thesis of the randomness that rules human life, this novel remains a rondo capriccio rather than one of Fischer’s finest.

Too Beautiful For You is the first foray into fiction for Rod Liddle, the controversial and very funny journalist. The tone of these stories, almost all of them obsessed with the sex lives of young South Londoners, very occasionally swerve fugitively between the precious and the perfect but this is something of a minor quibble. When Liddle ventriloquises the voices of his vapid, consumerist, hypertrendy characters, most notably in the longest story of the book, ‘Fucking Radu’, he scores a bull’s eye. The jokes are crisp, the prose is intelligent, the comic energy a potent mixture of satire and a furious yet restrained snarling, as if his writing is all at rage with the folly of this world. Liddle is no Ali Amith or Panos Karnezis, so don’t expect him to mint reality anew for you, but for what they are, acidly penetrating observations of the empty, ephemeral lives of the urban young, the stories are immensely readable and entertaining.

The other characteristic feature is the tenuous and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it way Liddle interconnects the stories and in this I see the black hand of an editor. Having squeezed first books of short stories almost completely out of the market, the British publishing industry is now jumping on to the bandwagon of linked stories, a halfway house between a novel and a short story collection, but to Liddle’s credit, he does it with a light hand. And what is it with him and Nokia? There’s barely a story where Nokia isn’t mentioned. Is there some kind of product placement going on here? We should be told.