Quim Monzo’s “Gasoline”

Reviewed by Petrina Cardona Crockford

Image of Quim Monzo’s “Gasoline”

Quim Monzó's Gasoline is a novel as an existential question: What happens when the idea of postmodernism becomes tangible reality? And how does this new reality affect the artist? Monzó addresses these questions by conflating reality and art into a world in which the mundane is absurd, ironic, and meaningless. In doing so he does not write about postmodernism so much as actually write it, and the result is a disconcerting, if comical, journey into a world laid bare by art.

Gasoline, first published in Spain in 1983 and set in Manhattan's disjointed art world of the 1980s, is Monzó's second novel (he's also a prolific short story writer and journalist). The novel opens with Heribert, an artist suffering from creative infertility, dreaming that he’s one of the besuited men in Hopper’s Nighthawks. Upon waking from his dream, Heribert remembers seeing the painting for the first time and his surprise at hearing that Hopper was a “precursor of the hyperrealists.” Heribert sees this assessment as a “devaluation” and an “injustice” because “in any Hopper there was so much more (a web of memory, of desire) than in all that evaporated outpouring of canvases filled with ketchup, French fries, and shiny cars.” In other words, Hopper is much more than a moment, or point, to be referenced, studied, or imitated; his is an original and honest art based on memory and desire. The novel places this idea in opposition to Heribert’s inability to create, which he believes is tied to his lack of desire and his inability to be original.  And so Heribert spends his time fretting over these things.

Resuscitating his desire, and thus his artistic integrity, is a daunting task; the things that were once desirous to Heribert no longer are. When he finds out that his wife, Helena (also the owner of the gallery where Heribert is scheduled to mount his upcoming show), is having an affair, he meets the discovery with dispassion; he’s bored with his own mistress, Hildegarda. Worse still, on the eve of his double show, he cannot paint—even his craft has come to bore him. Heribert finds himself wandering the city in an anesthetized state. He stops in a bookstore, where he's mystified by the classification system ("What do they mean by 'poetry'? Or 'romance'?"). He concludes that classifying books "is the only way to delimit them, understand them, control them, grasp them." Heribert's inability to classify the things around him exacerbates his lack of desire and begins to render senseless his reality until "it is as if he were sleeping awake or he were living asleep."

In this dream state, things are no longer what they seem, nor do they mean what they used to mean. In a bar, Heribert orders tequila and the waiter brings him a lemon and salt, which he does not use. When he orders a second tequila, the waiter brings him another lemon: “So why haven’t they brought him another salt shaker?” Watching a pornographic movie in a dingy booth in the back of an adult store, Heribert watches a young man “carrying a cardboard box the size of a pizza.” Heribert does not see a pizza box with, presumably, a pizza inside, but a “cardboard box the size of a pizza." The everyday, assumed meaning of objects in the world has been pushed aside. For Magritte, art was only a simulation (“Ceci n'est pas une pipe”); in Heribert’s case, he is living the simulation.

This conflation of art and reality culminates in a museum accident that leaves Heribert physically incapacitated. Regardless, his art show must go on, and here the narrative shifts to another character entirely, from Heribert to Humbert. Humbert is, in a sense, Heribert’s successor both in art and life. Not only is Humbert Helena's lover, he's also the artist whom she brings in to replace Heribert when he cannot mount his own show. The shift in perspective from Heribert to Humbert makes Gasoline two novels in one, though both sections focus on characters essentially suffering from the same problem. Heribert is at the end of a journey; Humbert is at the beginning—young, vibrant, full of ideas, he is doomed to end where Heribert began.

Monzó, who writes in Catalan, is sometimes labeled a hyperrealist writer because his stories often present a reality that can feel fantastical in its strangeness. In an interview with the European review Transcript, Monzó edged towards this classification on his own terms: “Realism, tout court, has never done very much for me at all frankly. Literature is not life, even though it is inspired by it.” Gasoline is not life, and its inspiration is not life either. Its inspiration is, to use a phrase from Baudrillard, "The simulation of something, which never really existed."

In Gasoline, this hyperreality is reinforced by the circular, non-linear structure of the novel. This structure heightens the narrative dream state Heribert and Humbert jointly inhabit; it typifies the nonlinear structure of postmodern art-making itself. Humbert’s narrative begins with him dreaming that's he’s in one of David Hockney’s swimming pools, an immediate recasting of Heribert's Nighthawks dream that opens the novel. The dream foreshadows the unraveling of Humbert's world—he, too, will have to reckon with hyperreality. Humbert shares with his double Heribert and the author Monzó an ambivalence about this conflict. “This excess of reality,” says Humbert, “holds no interest for me. No interest because it is a step backwards.” It’s a step backwards he can’t avoid. Humbert is destined to become Heribert. The very structure of the novel, then, is a postmodern pastiche in which characters' lives point to, even typify, each other, with these lives, collectively, preempting art (Hopper and Hockney).

In a novel about ideas it takes supreme talent to write characters that don't read like uninspiring mouthpieces. Monzó’s characters manage to be more than pawns to an idea because he allows them to react to their world in individual and oddly human ways. Heribert’s reaction to Helena’s affair, however muted, devolves into an afternoon street chase, with Heribert following Helena and Humbert in a blonde wig and heart-shaped sunglasses. Humbert, realizing he is on the verge of descending into creative infertility, reacts by flying around the world for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Despite the surreal context of these actions, they always feel like more than symbols or ideas; they are the actions of fully imagined characters confronting Monzó's macrocosm. This attests to Monzós talent, and makes the novel a joy to read. Gasoline is a masterful treatment of artistic ideas that manages not to devolve into the conflicted emptiness of the kind of art it evokes.