That Tibor Fischer’s latest offering, Crushed Mexican Spiders, is the product of a crowd-funded publishing platform is a testament to the public vote of confidence in the writer who, despite garnering his initial success through a traditional publishing forum, remains only too aware of the arbitrary nature of success in the book industry. “Why one book is successful and another isn’t is a bit of a mystery,” he muses in a 2004 interview with Robert Birnbaum. “The unpleasant truth [is] that most books are just printed, and there is a hope that they will win an award or some film producer will option it or it will become some sort of cult hit.” Luckily for Fischer, his refined panache for treading the ever-blurred line between tragedy and comedy appears to have resonated, however capriciously, with the literati, securing him—over the course of his 20-year career—adulatory praise, a Booker nomination and, perhaps most crucially (considering the apparent trend towards reader-directed publishing), an enthusiastic fandom clamouring for more. Fans will be pleased to hear that Crushed Mexican Spiders, a double-bill of short stories featuring the eponymous piece alongside the intriguing “Possibly Forty Ships,” scarcely strays from classic Fischer territory: both stories, though outwardly disparate in backdrop and tone, share a common charge: to plunder the underbelly of human compulsion in search of specks of compassion, an iota of universality—something that says we’re all in this together, despite our general reluctance to admit as much.
“Crushed Mexican Spiders” wastes no time serving up a noxious dose of modern life in the city: “London informed you that you got nothing for a lifetime of decency; not even a free glass of water,” reads the opening page, preying on a certain palpitation-inducing strain of frustration familiar to any long-term city dweller who’s ever tried to sprint up the underground escalator only to find an endless batch of lemmings standing on the left. Following a young woman who returns to her Brixton flat to find her key no longer works, the story, like London itself, “imperceptibly but perceptibly [toxifies] you.” As we witness the unnamed protagonist encounter one fantastically maddening predicament after another – her neighbours failing to recognize her, a strange interloper occupying her flat– our reaction comes to bear a haunting resemblance to that of the callous bystander who calmly watches a fellow commuter barrel towards imminently closing elevator doors: alongside the commiseration is an irresistible (and often bigger) urge to laugh – after all, we’ve all found ourselves shafted one time or another, no? Like a ravenous immune cell swallowing up a foreign particle, the city gradually consumes any and all evidence of the protagonist’s existence, leaving both her and the reader questioning whether any of it ever existed in the first place.
On the flip side (literally, it’s a flip-book), there’s “Possibly Forty Ships,” a spirited retelling of the Trojan War that pits Homer’s word against that of an eyewitness held at knifepoint and forced to divulge the details backing his revelation that in actuality, “there was no war.” Like the previous story, “Possibly Forty Ships” thrives on incongruity, this time endeavouring to reconfigure notions of what does and doesn’t constitute principal tenets of heroism like bravery, gallantry and pride. The re-write pitches Helen as an unremarkable hand-me-down, Agamemnon but a spectator and Menelaus a cowardly POW-cum-court jester, “contender for jug of jugs.” “Ever meet anyone who knew Achilles?” the veteran challenges his aggressor. “You can take pleasure in knowing they were [all] shameless liars. Achilles was… my private joke. A skinny child who liked wearing dresses…Any ten-year-old girl with spirit could have bested him. They only took him on the expedition because with so many men on a lengthy military campaign, they might need a jug.” The notion that chance alone sways the narrative’s turn of events – from the tempestuous conditions that sink the entire Greek fleet to the gust of wind that accidentally sets Troy alight – ascribes to the story an undeniably human element, reaping guffaws and knowing shakes of the head all the same.
Absurdity’s the word here: check your disbelief at the door, and comedy soon makes way for something a little grimier, more base in its suggestion that fighting against inherent human coldness is perhaps a futile endeavour – an unsettling notion to be sure. That each story is told by an unnamed source further compounds this notion that we are less concerned for one another than perhaps is befitting for creatures of the highest order. The compilation is touted as this year’s “hip literary stocking-filler,” but I’d venture that this is less of a style-over-substance entity than its marketing campaign seems to imply. The narratives may operate on outlandish premises, but Fischer’s mantra remains shrewd: “Stories recruit. Give people what they want and you’ll never go hungry.”
Sara Veale is a sub-editor of The Literateur.
For interview quotes, see http://www.identitytheory.com/tibor-fischer/