I’m not sure if Gasoline is a funny book or an annoying one. Knowing that Quim Monzo is a bit of a joker (reading one of his weekly columns in La Vnguradia made that obvious), should help me conclude the former. But that is outside of the book and doesn’t really make me desire to conclude the later. Gasoline is a relatively brief read, both in pages and complexity, and the actual experience of reading it was not unpleasurable, but for much of the meandering obsessions and love affairs that fill the book I had one thought: who cares. Perhaps if I was a painter I would have enjoyed it, found a way to relate to the characters, that popular, though limiting, mechanism of evaluation. Yet after each episode where one or the other of the Catalan doppelgangers stalks someone, or drinks too much, or has an affair with someone, all the while the art world sings his praises, all I can think is, yes, artists can live messed up lives; point taken. If Monzo wanted to take down modern art he would have done better to follow Michel Houellebecq’s bit from Platform.
So what about the book? What was it that caused me such consternation? The story follows Heribert Julia as he tries to paint new paintings for an upcoming a new exhibition. Caught in some sort of painter’s block he spends his time sleeping, drinking, and finding obsessions. He does everything except paint. For a while he stalks his wife, convinced she is having an affair. In perhaps the funnest part of the book he creates a disguise one store at a time as he follows her, eventually dressing as some sort of strange clown that makes him completely recognizable as he passes her. In one brief section he decides to buy collectible stamps, spending thousands on them. Then pages latter he changes to rare coins, spending even more, and then as he did with the stamps, he places them in the closet. Between the drinking and shopping he plots his next sexual conquest. His marriage is a disaster and it never seems like they are interested in being together or even care if one has disappeared for a few days, as if their lives have taken divergent paths and they live together out of habit. His undoing, though, is when he starts a new affair and in a moment of passion in a museum he knocks a bronze statue on his himself and ends up in the hospital days latter. He certainly will not be finishing the paintings for the shows, and one can only assume his role as the most important Catalan painter in New York is over.
The second part of the book follows Humbert (most of the characters have first names that start with H), a younger Catalan painter who has taken the New York art world by storm. Humbert is also married to Heribert’s wife. Obviously, the two painters are meant to be opposites and reflect different creative processes. Humbert keeps six or seven note books with different ideas and is constantly writing them down. Often they can be pretty pedantic: “Still life of different types of glasses and mugs;”or “The city, by night, as seen from the air: millions of tiny white, blue, and yellow dots.” Humbert is always working or going to the gym. He is obsessed with movement and avoiding the traps of Heribert. Eventually, though, he begins to have an affair with his wife’s friend’s daughter. They travel around, staying in hotels, drinking, all the while Humbert worries that he isn’t going to keep up the pace of work. The book ends with Humbert getting into bed with his lover on New Years Eve.
The book feels unfinished, a collection of incidents put together, but without any good reason for writing them. Sure the art world can be messy, but the book doesn’t really help me understand that. At the same time Monzo eschews psychological insights, which is fine, watching a collection of actions is not a bad approach and too much pschologizing can get tedious. But the insights the book itself leaves you with are just as flat as the character’s lives: I do this, then I do that, and then I might get obsessed about this; who knows, life is just one long collection of unconnected events. Unfortunately, it is not so much a tedious assemblage, for some how the book wasn’t painful to read, but it seems to want to dispense with something that isn’t that important to begin with, the art world. And Monzo is dispensing, too, with the idea of psychological insight, but his replacement, a light, episodic comedy falls flat. Monzo makes me long for Bernhard, where nothing really happens, but at least you know there is something behind it all. In Gasoline Monzo is just the class clown who has to be funny by compulsion, not because he has something fascinating to say.
If someone can point me to another work of his to convince me otherwise I will give him another try, but for now Quim Monzo’s Gasoline is the end of the line.