This Catalan novel, originally published in 1983, skewers New York's art scene in the Eighties
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., July 9, 2010
Gasolineby Quim Monzó
Open Letter, 141 pp., $14.95 (paper)
What fuels the artistic process? What explains an artistic block, and how does one deal with it? Is there any rhyme or reason to either? These are questions that are at least implied by Barcelonan writer Quim Monzó in this slim, often funny novel. Originally written in Catalan (translated by Mary Ann Newman) and published in Spain in 1983, Gasoline is set in the New York City art scene of the early 1980s among Catalonian expatriates. Painter Heribert Juliá has experienced a recent meteoric rise to fame and is only weeks away from a highly anticipated exhibit of his new work. But he's blocked and unable to create, spending hours killing time and hoping inspiration will strike. He sleeps in late, takes long walks, goes to bars where he can't decide what to order, and visits porn shops. Out of boredom he engages in intricate mind games involving numbers, stamps, and then coins. Frustrated, Juliá even contemplates an exhibit of blank canvases, but that's already been done. He's almost pleased to discover his wife is having an affair, while he is also losing interest in his mistress. When an amorous escapade in a museum results in an injury requiring hospitalization, Juliá's wife suggests that his exhibit be replaced by the work of the hot new artist on the scene, Humbert Herrera, who just happens to be her paramour. Not only is Juliá supplanted artistically, but he is also replaced as the story's main character with the second half of the book focusing on Herrera, who, contrary to Juliá, is bursting with creative fervor. Ironically, Herrera is more or less a mirror image of his rival, engaging in the same sorts of bizarre behaviors, demonstrating similar paranoid thinking, and even obsessing over the same painting, Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. Monzó satirizes New York's self-important art scene (or at least the egos that populate it), using humor, of course, but also not ignoring the darker sides that come with obsession and intense creativity. He employs nonlinear dream sequences to good effect, making the reader question reality. We don't really get answers to the mysteries of creativity, but perhaps the book's metaphorical title hints at its elusive, ephemeral nature.