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Book Review

Drowning in the Ether of Indifference

I LIKE BEING KILLED By Tibor Fischer Metropolitan Books $24, 262 pages

October 12, 2000|BERNAkTTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Using black humor, outrageous plot lines and showstopping descriptive pyrotechnics, Tibor Fischer writes about big issues: war, history, Western civilization, human agency and philosophy. Though fairly unknown in the United States, the British author has been hailed in Europe for "Under the Frog" (1993), the story of a group of basketball players adrift in Hungary during the anti-Soviet uprising of 1956; "The Thought Gang" (1997), the exploits of a disgraced philosophy professor on a crime spree who leaves philosophical conundrums as clues; and "The Collector Collector" (1997), in which an ancient bowl (yes, a bowl) serves as the story's narrator.

Reading Fischer, one is reminded of the potential of literature to make us laugh at the horrid and to be disturbed by what should never be funny. Along the lines of a Vonnegut or Pynchon, he twists language and narrative technique to get under the skin of his readers.

In "I Like Being Killed," his first collection of stories, there's plenty of his trademark bleakness and biting humor, but instead of taking on the grand questions of life, he has narrowed his focus to the quotidian, using a group of depressed, money-grubbing, cynical, 30-something Londoners as his foil. It reads as if all the world's ennui were gathered together and condensed into Fischer's select group of characters, for whom the power to make any significant changes has been reduced to naught. "The first four months of unemployment were the hardest," explains one such anesthetized narrator. "Like drowning, he supposed; you splash and thrash, but then the distress passes and you go with it."

Fischer's characters seem to have been defeated by some previous off-screen tragedy, and what's left is a great weariness, a bone-crushing boredom with how life has turned out. One character tells of firing a valued employee because she was happy. Though his vengeance appalls him, the firing "had been like watching on television another poorly filmed atrocity in some country you wouldn't be able to find on the map; barely a pang before you go to the fridge."

In these cautionary tales of day-to-day urban life, no action is of consequence. Regardless of which moral extreme they might assume--heroic deeds, abysmal conduct or something in between--the choices his characters make are unimportant. "Silly, in even fifty years it wouldn't matter whether he garroted them, let alone annoyed or upset them," one character muses about friends at dinner. Even death, the ultimate threat, adds up to nothing. "Death wouldn't be cocky. . . . Wouldn't be sexy. Wouldn't be impressive at all. Death would be like the vet. Boring. Bald. Fat. Badly dressed."

In many of the stories, the telling fails to rise above the details of his sad-sack characters, and we're in danger of being swamped along with them. But in the strongest stories, Fischer succeeds in waking readers from the ether of indifference and the narcolepsy of greed.

Take "Bookcruncher," which follows a British emigre in Manhattan on a mission to read every book ever written. In this strong, multilayered tale, the narrator lives in libraries and bookstores, hiding out as the staff closes for the night, only to cuddle up in an armchair and read his heart out. There is more hope and vibrancy here than in the rest of the collection. "Books aren't life," a friend tries to dissuade the marathon reader from his task. "No, they're better," he responds, remaining the one beacon of faith. Indeed, in Fischer's cosmology, books are precisely where salvation may yet be found. "Books were made of hope, not paper," he writes. "Hope that someone would read your book; hope that it would change the world or improve it."

Fischer's ambition appears to be just that: To change the world. Yet if he has abandoned intellect for depression and deep thought for detachment, that shift seems to be in service of the larger story he's buried here: As a society, we're going to hell in a jaded handbasket. Unfortunately, his characters' listlessness so weights the narrative as to undermine any sense of vigor. Readers new to his work would be well-advised to approach his earlier novels first; coming upon these stories cold might curb one's interest.

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