Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Review of Gasoline by Quim Monzó (translated by Mary Ann Newman)

Gasoline
4 out of 5: Gasoline, Quim Monzó’s latest novel to be translated into English, opens at a moment of crisis in Heribert’s career as a painter: he must paint enough canvases to fill two galleries in time for an imminent double show. Instead of working, however, Heribert wallows in indifference and boredom, wandering the city streets, drinking in random bars, and visiting sex shops. As Heribert’s career stagnates, another younger artist—Humbert (bizarrely, almost all characters’ names begin with the letter ‘H’ in Gasoline)—steps in to take advantage of Heribert’s artistic and romantic slump.

Gasoline explores the joys and pitfalls of creativity and obsession, alternating whimsy and humor with dark moments of doubt. Heribert’s dilemma is both heartbreaking and absurd, causing the reader’s feelings towards this unhappy artist to vacillate between pity and derision. During one bleak scene, for example, Heribert attempts to turn on every light and appliance in his house to drown out his sorrow over his estrangement from his wife. The touching scene shades into absurdity when Heribert is thwarted in his noise-making by a cassette player that refuses to play both the radio and a cassette tape at the same time, leading Heribert to conclude that the machine is nothing but “a lie.”

Gasoline is a sensitive portrayal of artistic creation and its often unstable personalities. Half cautionary tale, half tribute to the limitless capacity of the human imagination, Gasoline is wholly provocative and entertaining.

3 comments:

Zibilee said...

I had to laugh at that bit about the tape player! It sounds like a really interesting book, and very different than those I normally read. I am going to be taking a closer look at this one. It sounds like a clever mix of both hopefulness and despair. Great review!

Rebecca :) said...

It is bizarre that all the characters' names begin with an "H". But I suppose no more bizarre than the couple on the show 19 and Counting...whose children's names all begin with J. I do like a little diversity in my books! It does sound like it could be an entertaining read, though. Thanks for the review!

rjnagle said...

Isn't it interesting that most of your reviews are 4 stars these days?

It's generally the case with me. I probably wouldn't be able to finish a book that was anything less than 3 stars. Sure, maybe a bad bestseller would be readable, but chances are, I wouldn't even have tackled it in the first place.

Frankly, there is an abundance of good fiction there, and it is hard to say that an earnest and well-written novel deserves anything less than 3 1/2 stars even if it doesn't rock your world.

I'm currently reading Serpent and the Rope by Raja Rao. It definitely has moments and great writing, but it is also very slow and not much is happening. (I have taken a long time to finish it). I see enough of the artistry to rank it as 3 1/2, but do I feel enthusiasm? Do I eagerly wish to keep reading? (Would one eagerly wish to finish a Proust volume?)

To a certain extent a literary work has succeeded if it has persuaded a good reader to finish it. (That is harder to do than you might think!)

I feel lucky if I have hit one 5 star work of literature per year. (Last year I hit 3, but they were all by the same author).

I think part of the judging criteria rests on the book's ability to entrap the reader's attention (and frankly a lot of contemporary fiction isn't good at this).

But I the reader bear some responsibility too. There are periods where I don't open my life to fiction very easily. Also, fun/pleasure can't be the main criteria for judging fiction. Maybe Moby Dick was fun (in my opinion anyway), but Scarlet Letter? Brothers K? These were absorbing and suspenseful and definitely provoked moral and psychological issues.

At the same time, suspense is way overrated. Dickens used a lot of it, but to little effect (I put him at the top of my Overrated pantheon). Melodrama, suspense and sentimentality make for great reading, but lousy literature.