Translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2012)
Quim Monzó’s a thousand morons is a flat book, and this can be either a good or a bad thing depending on which of its stories you’re reading. Good first. As the papa of flat American prose Ernest Hemingway (who Monzó has translated into Catalan) said, there is a way that the activity we usually associate with finished writing can obscure rather than reveal the thing being written about. It’s like fishing: Move around too much and the water gets muddy. Conversely, if you sit still, the water clears and you can see the truth sleeping at the bottom of it like a trout or submarine. The key is in the metaphor of vision: Writing is not something you read, or even see. It’s something you see through, like a keyhole. Reality is on the other side of it, and though you may never be able to get there, you may be able to earn glimpses of it, the way Nick Adams does when he catches a trout and thinks, “By God he was a big one. By God he was the biggest one I ever heard of.”
Monzó’s narrators have never been to Montana, or fished, or had their sexual organs blown off, but they walk around with dazed Hemingway-like expressions on their faces. They are creatures of habit and more than habit, repetition – men and women who sink so deeply into whatever activity they are doing that after a certain point (usually about one third of the way into a story) it starts doing them. The result of this submersion is, typically, violent. A woman who has spent all day throwing away traces of her ex-lover ends up cutting off her own skin; a man staring out a window imagines shaving off his earlobe; a boy shows up to class with a wound in his neck and is upbraided for his lateness. In each case, the gash either occurs off-stage or is related in the same flat, unaccented tone as the rest of the story – an effect that makes it seem like the logical conclusion rather than an out-of-the-blue interruption. This is the power of realism, which can make anything seem normal, so long as the author’s face remains believably unimpressed. Watching the woman take a knife to her own arm, we think “Makes sense,” instead of “Where did this come from?” So Monzó’s patient, effective, utterly unexcitable storytelling actually reverses a famous modernist dictum: Instead of making the ordinary strange, he makes strange things ordinary.
The word for this kind of combination is, typically, “the absurd”; but it’s important to specify here that absurdity, for Monzó, has nothing to do with random acts of weirdness. On the contrary, the strange things that his narrators do are always logical – at least to them. They are the final, or sometimes not even final, steps in plans that have been lovingly constructed and faithfully followed: obsessions, in other words. There is an attractive pathos in this: You want them to wake up; at the same time, you want them to follow their twisted little stars on the remote chance that the world will actually bend to them. It never does, but it does swing close at times, revealing glimpses of reality as clear and transcendent as any in Hemingway. Here, for example, is the narrator of the appropriately named “I am Looking out of the Window”:
I doubt that anyone in the world has ever looked out of the window with the same devastating conviction that I am now: the conviction that I have transformed a banal act into a futile obsession to which I will have devoted a few hours and, then, forgotten forever; or at least I hope so . . . It is very likely that on another day—or maybe even today—I will take another look through the window, but possibly never, ever will I do so with such fervor and dedication. At least, with that glee in discovering an unexpected possibility in this life where everything is so familiar.
Moments of clarity like this one are heartbreakingly unsustainable to Monzó’s morons – not just because that’s the nature of clarity but because as soon as they’re achieved, the moronic mind commences to pick them apart. There is a horror of propagation in this: a fear of the way that people, things, and even ideas can be broken down into simpler pieces. No matter how unassailable a thing might seem, it can be reduced; similarly, it can be copied, reproduced, extended. The frightening characteristic of the modern world is the slight resistance that it offers to this kind of manipulation – how often, on the contrary, it allows contradicting realities to stand next to one another, the way a child might rush into class with his neck gashed open and be yelled at for the mess his blood is making on the classroom floor. Clearly, the child and the teacher exist at that moment in two different worlds. But instead of pointing in horror to this disjunction, Monzó downplays it, suggesting by his calm that such contradictions are not absurd at all but typical of everyday life.
He doesn’t always succeed. The strongest stories in a thousand morons represent boredom and obsession in ways that are interesting and various; the weakest, however, are merely accurate. They are mathematical problems: equations whose solution is obvious as soon as we recognize the terms. This is at least partially a problem of length, for without room to unfold, Monzó’s stories feel claustrophobic, like duffle bags that we are being asked to stuff ourselves into. “How do I know I have a story? When I have two stories,” as Grace Paley famously said. But Monzó’s obsessive narrative logic insists on riding his single stories to their predictable ends. Going with him is like fishing in a bathtub: Sure, you can see the bottom, but what is there to see?
Asking such a reductive question of a writer who is essentially a parodist seems unfair: After all, when talking about obsession, the point is not what, but how one sees. Or, the point is all the various ways that one contrives not to see. Either way, in a thousand morons the keyhole of words reveals only more doors and more keyholes.
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Josh Billings’s review of a thousand morons originally appeared in TLR’s Spring 2013 issue, Invisible Cities.