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the complete review - fiction
Don't Read This Book
if You're Stupid
(I Like Being Killed)
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- UK title: Don't Read This Book if You're Stupid
- US hardcover title: I Like Being Killed
- US paperback title: Don't Read This Book if You're Stupid
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B+ : artful but grim
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The LA Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|San Francisco Chronicle
|The Sunday Times
|The Washington Post
No consensus, though pretty much everyone thought at least some (if only tiny) aspects of it were worthwhile.
No agreement, however, on what is good and what isn't: some like the two very long pieces, other like the short ones.
All do agree that it is dark stuff.
Note that William Deresiewicz's review in The New York Times Book Review is among the most savage dismissals not only of one book but of an author's entire oeuvre (with a few stabs at the author himself thrown in for good measure) that we have recently come across.
There are a few nice words for Under the Frog, but even those are tempered ("it has much to be forgiven"), and from there on it is steeply downhill ("after three decreasingly good novels") to this collection with which Fischer "appears to have hit rock bottom".
Here, Deresiewicz writes, "we seem to see the real man for the first time. It's not a pretty sight."
Neither is Deresiewicz's review.
Usually it is only spiteful ex-lovers who get this nasty.
From the Reviews:
- "(T)he shorter tales in Donít Read This Book If Youíre Stupid are as original, hilarious and poignant as one could hope. (...) A nihilism underlies much of Fischerís work. What makes it so readable is the contrast between this and the joyous invention of his prose style." - John Elliott, Daily Telegraph
- "(M)ost of this book is unusually subdued. Eternal loneliness crops up a lot (.....) Sadly, the thematic repetitiveness tends to kick the faces off the characters: they're all the same underneath. (...) Don't Read This Book If You're Stupid is still a mordantly amusing collection of prose riffing: a writer of Fischer's gifts is never in danger, even at this low ebb, of being boring. But its overwhelming bleakness evokes a picture of great talent struggling with something approaching despair." - Steven Poole, The Guardian
- "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. (...) Unfortunately, his characters' listlessness so weights the narrative as to undermine any sense of vigor." - Bernakette Murphy, The Los Angeles Times
- "This collection of short stories (...) is proof of his range. His imagination can still abscond with him when he is not looking, but here, we are reminded that he is in ultimate control. (...) The stories run the gamut from the naturalistic to the passing strange, from the chilling flat reportage of Ice Tonight in the Hearts of Young Visitors (...) to pieces that are in various degrees of detachment from the wall." - George Walden, New Statesman
- "So devoid are these pieces of any literary merit, it's a tribute to Fischer's lingering reputation that they got published at all. At the same time, the sheer dreariness that pervades them, as well as the demoralized quality of their execution, gives the volume a morbid psychological interest. (...) The book itself has more trouble coping with its obligations than its characters do. Nothing ever gets going. Most of the stories peter out after a few pages, having failed to sustain a single scene or even adequately sketch a setting. (...) Even Fischer's characteristic verbal energy is gone. It never amounted to more than a kind of rapid twitching, but without it, the corpse lies flat." - William Deresiewicz, The New York Times Book Review
- "Fischer invests acutely in the comic surface of his tales, which tend to start in misery and hurtle blackly towards despair. He packs more scabrous one-liners into a paragraph than many thirtysomething novelists manage in a book. In the most ambitious of the stories (...) he sustains a level of savage invention that makes Irvine Welsh seem like Joanna Trollope. The collection bears the authentic voice of the vacuous Nineties." - Tim Adams, The Observer
- "His characters flirt with amorality, but pull back at the last moment. (...) But the collection gets stronger as it goes along, the humor growing ever darker and the ethical dilemmas more complex." - Sarah Coleman, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Fischer's preoccupation is unwavering. He gazes into the unprepossessing modern world, finds it full of bitterness and disappointment and, with dramatic overkill, goes for what might be called the 'Shakespeare's foot technique', the sleight of hand that makes something comic out of something tragic. The trouble is that his characters (...) all merge into one. (...) You have no sympathy with any of them. (...) But at the heart of this book are eight pages of pure gold. Fischer's account of driving to Timisoara during the Romanian revolution grips. (...) (T)hese pages showed Fischer at his best and his best is very sharp." - Katie Grant, The Spectator
- "I Like Being Killed (...) is one of two standouts in the collection. The other, the longest of the seven, We Ate the Chef, (...) is side-splittingly funny, in a modishly post-black way. Two very different tastes predominate in Fischer's distinctive style. One is high-voltage wise-cracking. The other is profound pessimism about the human condition. (...) Do read this book; but you don't have to like it." - John Sutherland, Sunday Times
- "Even at its most melancholy, Fischer's fiction is fuelled by comic invention. When he exaggerates for an effect that he can achieve far better with understatement, he merely blunts the edge of his observations." - David Horspool, Times Literary Supplement
- "Fischer clearly has no pity for the poor reader who craves a little sunshine amid the gloom. (...) Fischer writes well, with a clean, wry style and a keen ear for the catchy rhythms that often propel the most casual conversations. Even so, after successive tales of soul-battering angst, readers may want to take a brief respite lest they develop suicidal tendencies." - Jabari Asim, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
There will always be books with bad titles, but few books can boast having two horrible titles.
Incredibly, Tibor Fischer's collection of stories can.
Understandably Fischer's American publishers could not offer a work titled Don't Read This Book if You're Stupid to the American public (the risk that the warning would be heeded being just too great), but of all the titles then to choose why such a suicidal one as I Like Being Killed ?
It is admittedly also the title of one of the stories in the collection, and perhaps better than some of the other options -- Fifty Uselessnesses or Portrait of the Artist as a Foaming Deathmonger, for example -- but it does not sound like a title the book-buying public would warm to.
After all, those who presumably would theoretically be attracted to a title such as I Like Being Killed have either offed themselves or can be found wandering around the bad parts of town looking to get in harms way -- and not browsing the bookshelves at their local superstore (or on the Internet) for catchy titles such as this.
Titles should not matter too much, but they do say something about a book (and its author -- and its publisher and, occasionally, about cultural differences (consider, for example, Fay Weldon's Big Women (see our review) ridiculously retitled Big Girls Don't Cry in self-conscious and overweight America)).
To title a book Don't Read This Book if You're Stupid is a slap in the face of (potential) readers.
I Like Being Killed suggests the flip side of the coin, an author's admission of a deep-rooted, even pathological, masochistic streak.
In any case, neither title promises much fun.
(Note: the title-story continues, as the publisher that brought out the paperback of this book in the US in the fall of 2001, PicadorUSA, opted to revert to the original British title (Don't Read This Book if You're Stupid).)
At least Fischer (and his publishers) are honest: these are dark books, the fun so black that there isn't a glint of light or hope on these pages.
Which isn't all a bad thing: empty, mindless fun can be banal, and there's nothing wrong with a healthy dose of cynicism.
In the right hands it can even be mighty entertaining.
Are Fischer's the right hands ?
He writes well and wickedly.
The turn of phrase, the sharp despair: he handles it well.
But that cynicism -- it's far beyond the healthy range.
The first story, We ate the Chef, is the longest, near a hundred pages.
Jim is a Web-developer who missed the boat, coming neither early nor late enough into the game, his business floundering, his life truly pathetic.
All his life he has been searching for something worthwhile, and he hasn't even come close to finding it.
Jim takes a holiday on the Côte d'Azur (not that he has the money for it), staying with an old friend (of sorts) named Hugo, who has had a bit more success in life.
There are others at Hugo's house too, including two Russian girls and one of Jim's incompetent (but more successful) competitors.
Whether they have money or looks or neither, they are all a fairly desperate lot.
Fischer's tale doesn't go far: it is mainly descriptive, full of the sad and sorry tribulations on the French coast as his characters go look for a fun time, spend money on drink, and meet various misfortunes.
There's clever stuff here: it's well written, with good detail and some fun (though generally unpleasant) anecdotes.
As a story, however, it is not particularly satisfying, ending with a wail (a reaction the story might also elicit from readers), in abject hopelessness.
The other stories are also dark, though perhaps none as relentlessly bleak save the last one, I Like being Killed.
There is the tale of John Smith, in Portrait of the Artist as a Foaming Deathmonger: he sets out to become an artist and meets failure at every turn until he creates a "whole new art form" (it takes him all of forty-five minutes to do so), which he calls "the grabby".
It is a rare tale of triumph (of sorts) with an ending that, in Fischerian terms, is practically a happy one.
Fifty Uselessnesses tells a sad gun-toting tale, Then they say you're Drunk introduces other hapless folk (including the Scotts, criminals of breathtaking incompetence), while Bookcruncher tells of a man who devotes his life to reading every book ever written in English.
"Books aren't life" someone tells him; his answer is: "No, they're better."
He lives in libraries and bookstores, getting himself locked in at night so he can pursue his ambition, spending all his time with a book in each hand (yes, he apparently reads two at a time).
There is a brief moment of hope for him, but he can't embrace it.
Ice Tonight in the Hearts of Young Visitors tells of a trip to Romania in the tumultuous and violent times following the fall of the Iron Curtain.
(This story is apparently based on Fischer's own experiences).
Needless to say, the picture is an ugly one; the fact that it is also an authentic one is pretty much lost in this collection of tales of similarly dismal and dire circumstances.
Finally, the long last story I Like being Killed (probably the best in the collection) tells of stand-up comedienne Miranda and her various attempts to find some point to life.
She insults her audience, tries to aggravate her boyfriend, organizes a benefit for some Burmese comedians, climbs Nelson's Column (in dramatic style), and even tries to get some rough action in Edinburgh (staggeringly failing to achieve even that ambition).
There are other comedians with sad lives and sadder routines, and Fischer again paints a nice milieu-portrait, but to little (or rather: only grim) end.
It is an odd collection, dark but not dank, cynical but not triste.
Fischer writes well and the stories are all fairly sharp and pointed.
There are clever turns of phrases and keen observations throughout.
There is almost nothing that bores.
But damn is his vision bleak.
Abandon hope all ye who open these pages.
It is not a great collection -- there is too little cohesion in some of the stories, too little point to them (beyond that all is despair) -- but Fischer is a talented author and the stories are certainly worth reading.
Not a collection for depressives, or those who insist on more story to their stories, but otherwise certainly recommended.
But readers should be aware of what they are in for.
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Don't Read This Book if You're Stupid / I Like Being Killed:
Other Books by Tibor Fischer under Review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
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About the Author:
Born in 1959 British author Tibor Fischer's first book, Under the Frog won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
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