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On my way to meet Tibor Fischer, author of the newly published Voyage to the End of the Room, I happened to read an article I’d downloaded and stuck at the bottom of pile of paper products which announced that he was a tough interview. So I stopped off at the Staples in Penn Station and bought another tape recorder as if to stave off the possibility of the scary interview by spending money. I arrived at the New York offices of his publisher with two tape players, 20 batteries and 16 microcassettes.
It’s difficult to get a real sense of Fischer. When you talk to him he sometimes looks off at the walls for long periods of time as if he’s in analysis or reading from invisible cue cards. But just as you start to think he doesn’t really need you around, he turns for a spate of sentences to look you right in the eye in a piercingly scruffy fashion.
He had come to the US for a micro-tour of Boston, New York and Miami. In fact, he put up with the chill of Boston and New York for the sole purpose of getting to Miami. He makes no attempt to say nice things about either of the cold cities or to disguise his purposes with a nobler motive like bringing literature to those poor sentence-starved audiences of a warmer state not particularly known for its high level of intellect. One of the more charming aspects of Fischer is this directness. Another striking aspect is his ability to summon annoyance, even outrage—over things that have happened in the world, whether this be Martin Amis’s not writing up to par or the simple hazards of daily life.
This latest book took him an inordinate amount of time to write he says (two years!), but he says there were leaks in all four corners of his house and issues with suing people and getting people to own up to their responsibilities. In fact, if there is one thing that can get Fischer incensed, it’s the state of London, the lack of garbage pickup and the general degradation of the system. To hear Fischer speak, London is becoming quite a hellhole. “My parents tell me it wasn’t always like this.”
So what of this book which defies the first thing they teach you in any MFA program—to get your character out of the house and into the world? “Well, I cheat a bit,” he says. There is technology available now that make leaving the house possible without actually physically breaching the premises and Oceane makes full use of it even if she never actually gets beyond “the beach”—the mailboxes downstairs. By employing flashbacks to her job at a sex club and and wiring up her surrogate, Audley, a fascinating bill-collector, Fischer does manage to get beyond the four walls which enclose Oceane. Does the agoraphobic novel emerge from personal experience? “Well, sort of. Travelling is difficult and writers tend to want to stay at home and do their work.” But yet here he is.
Fischer arrived at fiction when he gave up his journalistic career in Hungary and moved back to England. He had managed to get to Hungary in the first place because, although he didn’t speak the language, he had a convincingly Hungarian name from having descended from Hungarian basketball players. He himself has no athletic skills—despite practicing for years, “I still could lose a tennis match to someone who just picked up a racket for the first time—well, maybe I’m not that bad, but almost,” he says. Back in Britain and idle, he decided to write the novel which became Under the Frog (or as it’s original title said Under the Frog’s Ass. ) Once finished, he sent the novel out to 56 publishing houses (there are 59 in England and he resolved to send to all of them if necessary before giving up). He saved a few pence on postage and managed not to send it to numbers 57 and 58. Almost miraculously, the boot got shortlisted for the Booker. Fischer says that he’s read people write that it was on the only first novel ever to achieve such an honor, but this isn’t the case. “I’m pretty confident though that it’s the only first novel from an author with no agent to get to that point,” he says.
Another thing that can get him venting his ire is Andrew Wylie, a.k.a. “the Jackal”—superagent to the literary stars such as Amis, Rushdie, Roth, Bellow and Mailer. Wylie was his agent—and isn’t any more and one of the problems relates to photocopying costs. In the notorious Amis as “masturbating uncle” article (it wasn’t a review insists Fischer), that knocked Amis’ Yellow Dog, Wylie gets some vitriol hurled his way. Fischer says that there was more in his original article, but the lawyers (another set of people he’s not fond of) wouldn’t let him say what he wanted.
Now speaking of the notoriety—or what a New York Times Book Review piece by another first novel prodigy, Jay McInerny called “the elephant in the room”—what about that Amis piece?
Fischer claims he never set out to skewer Amis in the Telegraph last summer. “They called me,” he says. “It was a column, not a review,” and this distinction means he didn’t have to justify his criticisms in the way he would have felt compelled to in a review. “They called me and I had to think of something to do and there was Yellow Dog sitting there.” But what about the embargo on reviews of the book that Fischer violated with his article. “The embargo was a ludicrous idea.” And “I never signed that paper,” says Fischer miming the ripping of a letter. “In fact I was quiet annoyed with Wylie and the way he gets all upset about embargoes, so it was more aimed at him than Amis anyway.” And Amis’s book was it really all that bad? “The second half of the book was awful, he just wanted to finish it and get it over with.” Fischer feels that Amis ought to be criticized for not living up to his promise and when asked if Amis didn’t in fact broach the serious issue of pedophilia in Yellow Dog, Fischer concedes but suggests that such issues don’t save the book. “And that Royal Family subplot is ridiculous. Really awful.”
Did he have any idea of the tumult which would result? “Not at all, but nothing happens in August so that’s what did it. Everyone needed something to talk about.”
Fischer evades the issue of whether this was a self-promotional tactic considering that his own book was to be published the very day that Yellow Dog appeared, “I had to write that my book was out on the same day, but that wasn’t my doing and I could hardly leave that out of the article. Could I?”
“But your publicist is calling you the “bad boy of English letters—” I point out. “I didn’t know that,” he tells me.
Nevertheless when I came home to listen to the tapes—there were two of them because I talked to Fischer for quite some time—there was nothing but static on them. This example of my own lack of taping skills would hardly be surprising, except that I discovered that another interviewer (one who has successfully conducted hundreds and hundreds of interviews) informed me that when he interviewed Fischer, he experienced only the second taping problem of his long career. I suspect that the problem had more to do with Fischer than the mechanical ineptitude of his interviewers and Fischer confirmed that when he worked in television he was known as “the Prince of Darkness.” Obviously, just as ghosts refuse to appear on film, the man does not show up on tape.