Friday, 1 April 2011

Book of the Month: Good to be God (Tibor Fischer)

Tibor Fischer burst on to the literary scene in 1993 with his debut novel, Under the Frog, a compelling, funny and very moving account of a bunch of young men struggling to survive in Hungary, in the 1950s, and also plotting amateurishly against the Soviet regime. Since then he has published a few more novels, characterized by an intoxicating amalgam of outlandish plots bordering on the ludicrous, wacky characters, uninhibited humour, adorned by a profusion of unusual phraseology.

At forty plus, Tyndale Corbett, the hero of Good to be God, Fischer’s most recent novel, is, by the conventional criteria, a failure. He has recently been made redundant from his job as a sales representative in a company that manufactures light-bulbs. His wife has left him; he is running out of money; and he has got a chronic and embarrassing medical condition (the nature of which remains a mystery till the end). This is how Corbett summarizes his situation: 

‘You know you are in trouble when you get back home, the door’s been kicked in, the only thing stolen is the lock . . . and your burglar has left a note urging you to “pull yourself together.”’  

Corbett has hit the rock bottom. Having nothing to lose, Corbett accepts the generous offer of his childhood friend Nelson (who works for a company that manufactures handcuffs) to go to Miami, using his, Nelson’s, passport, and spend a week in a luxury hotel where Nelson is expected to attend a conference, posing as Nelson. If you are thinking that this sounds a bit farfetched, be advised that  this is the first of a series of situations in Good to be God, that beggars belief. After savouring the pleasures of the luxury hotel in sunny Miami, Corbett is understandably reluctant to go back to the dreary, gray, drizzly London. He decides to stay back and, as if to compensate for the miniscule ambitions of his previous life, decides to pose as God. Using contacts of a shady friend, Corbett rents a room in the house of a Cuban called Sixto who (predictably) is involved in drug-trafficking and, in his spare time, acts as a delivery boy for the Cuban. However, Corbett has not lost sight of his grand ambition: to become, that is to pose as, that is to convince the gullible Miamians that he is the Supreme Being. Towards that end he ingratiates himself with a crackpot Evangelist, who calls himself the Hierophant and who runs the Church of the Heavily Armed Christ, in a run-down area of Miami. Corbett has his task cut out, as the congregation of the Church can be easily accommodated in a mini-van and there would still be empty seats. But that does not matter. It does not matter because Corbett is in no hurry to spring on Miami his make-over as the Supreme One. Instead he gets involved in a number of capers, involving—this is trademark Fischer—characters that make the most outlandish and preposterous of Salman Rushdie creations appear epitomes of sobriety by comparison. Towards the end Corbett makes a half-hearted go at posing as God by arranging his own return from the dead; but no one takes any notice; the word does not spread. But that does not matter either because Corbett might have found his soul-mate.

Good to be God reads like a series of japes, which, side-splitting as they are, are only very loosely connected, and struggle to make a coherent narrative. The novel is a modern day picaresque, a literary version of Quentin Tarantino movie, except that Fischer does not bother—because he is not interested in—to tie all the disparate elements of the story together. Indeed the plot is minimal; it is almost incidental, and merely serves as a springboard for Fischer to indulge in what he enjoys most: conjuring up preposterous situations, throwing in grotesque, off-the-wall characters, and providing satirical commentary, by association, on life. Early in the novel Corbett declares that he has abjured reason and jettisoned honesty, and has learned to laugh at qualities such as reliability, compassion, punctuality, patience, industry, and the truth—a big hint Fischer is giving to the readers of what they might expect in the remainder of the novel. However, if you have read Fischer’s earlier novels such as The Thought Gang (in which a philosopher teams up with a one-armed French convict, and goes on a robbing spree, Bonny and Clyde style) or Voyage to the End of the Room (in which an agoraphobic lands up with a job in a strip joint in Barcelona), you would know what to expect.

Fischer loves to back himself into an auctorial corner by giving himself the challenge of a preposterous, almost improbable, situation, and, relying on his unusual (or ‘unordinary’ as one of his characters would describe it) imagination, follows it up with a succession of situations, each more absurd than the preceding one, until the reader is left with no choice but to suspend his credulity and enjoy the ride. And what an enjoyable ride Good to be God is. In addition to its protagonist who, it seems, can’t stop himself from getting involved in comically outlandish situations and providing extremely funny, if ersatz, insights, into the human condition, there are many other comical (or ‘mirthful’, as Fischer would probably describe them) and extremely peculiar, if scarcely believable, characters such as ‘Dishonest Dave’, and the bumbling crooks whom Corbett hires to carry out his jobs and who take inspiration from French wines while choosing their codenames (Gamy and Muskat).

Fischer has an unusual way of arranging phrases and creating words. The couples produce ‘pride-making’ children; a disaster is ‘planetocidal’; people get concerned about undergoing ‘intellectual intimidation’; and the protagonist does not want to ‘tournamentize’ life. And for good measure he throws in words such as ‘gimpli’ and ‘kennedy’ (both used as verbs) you would not find outside of an Urban Dictionary. This has the effect of adding more flavour, as if that is needed, to what is already a piquant Hungarian goulash.

Good to be God, despite its slightly misleading title—misleading because the protagonist, after announcing his grandiloquent intentions in the first few pages does precious little to achieve the goal—is an entertaining, laugh out loud romp. Fischer has been described as the best thinking man’s entertainer since Iris Murdoch. While both Murdoch and Fischer take great delight in offering sardonic insights—which, in spite of appearing to be searing, are, in fact, exterieur—I am not sure such juxtaposition does justice to Fischer, whose plots and narrative style are about as close to that of the overrated Iris Murdoch as Rembrandt’s paintings are to Rolf Harris’s.

Tibor Fischer is one of the funniest writers writing in English today, and Good to be God is a very funny novel that is sure to lighten your mood. You almost forgive him for neglecting to construct a believable story-line.