How many ways can a person experience a work of art without deviating from the intended truth of the canvas or the page? How can we give ourselves over to the artist and leave our egos behind? Is there truth in art, and if so what kind of truth and where? Quim Monzó’s novel, Gasoline—published in Spain in 1983 and recently translated from Catalan to English—takes on these questions in its opening scene, setting the tone for the pages that follow. The novel begins by dropping the reader into the middle of a dream, a dream that replicates Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks: One woman and two men with wide-brimmed hats sit at a bar in a diner on the corner of two dark and deserted streets. A thin, old waiter stands behind the counter, wearing a white, soda jerk’s hat. Monzó’s dreamer is Heribert Julia, a frustrated painter struggling to get something, anything, on canvas. When he dreams, he creates plenty, embroidering Hopper’s work with images of his own:
[The diner begins] filling up with people: men identical (in face, hat, and suit) to the man or men already sitting there; and women identical (in face, hairdo, and dress) to the woman already at the counter (but wearing hats, fur stoles draped around their necks, and shiny handbags). Outside, in the street, there is a good layer of snow on the ground…though in the painting he had seen as a child…there wasn’t a trace of snow.
In contrast to his active dream life, Heribert drifts through his waking life bored and artistically blocked. He’s frustrated, overwhelmed by life’s choices: what to paint, whom to love. He struggles to find answers while a growing inertia threatens to make these decisions for him. Heribert’s subconscious is alive, but he can’t tap into it. The mysterious source of his creativity seems to have dried up.
Gasoline is set in New York City, but Monzó’s narrator keeps us so close to Heribert that the details of his environment become incidental. We ride the subway, but it’s not important if it’s the 2 or the 4. We enter bookstores and porn shops and galleries, but we’re left to imagine what block they might be on. Despite the fact that New York’s art scene is central to Gasoline’s narrative, Manhattan is almost invisible. Monzó invites us to create our own New York, to paint our own cityscape from our own stock images of the Big Apple—much like Heribert recreated Nighthawks. Monzó gives us just enough detail and leaves the rest to our imagination.
Gasoline’s most detailed landscape lies deep inside Heribert’s head. He’s an obsessed, attentive, neurotic guide. The novel’s ideas about art and creation are filtered through Heribert’s interior monologues rather than dramatized in the novel’s action. Some of these monologues are funny, taking the edge of Heribert’s earnest search for answers. When Heribert wanders into a bookstore, he muses about how he used to worry about the distinction between fiction and literature:
Steinbeck was under fiction, and Hardy under literature. In those days he had found it arbitrary and had deduced that they considered literature to have died in the nineteenth century and, from that moment on, everything was fiction. But there were also flaws in that line of reasoning: Kafka was under literature. What was he doing there?…It’s obvious that Hardy and Kafka are literature, and Steinbeck fiction. Why rock the boat?
Heribert’s conundrum, his genre confusion, will resonate easily with a thoughtful reader. More empathy may be required when he enters a peepshow, fails to get an erection, but gets slightly hard reading a copy of Mademoiselle. Literature or fiction, pornography or women’s fashion? Such scenes are played for laughs (at least this reader couldn’t help but chuckle) but the questions they imply are serious to anyone who cares about art with a capital A. These moments evoke the first of many real or imagined dichotomies, which, as the novel progresses, take up residence inside Heribert’s head, manifesting themselves in contrasting characters.
Gasoline’s early pages move at a languid pace as Heribert walks the streets contemplating the nature of art. Then we meet Helena, his wife. Within one breath, she obsesses over opera, painting, and Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. Before long, she begins an affair with Humbert Herrera, another New York painter who, unlike Heribert, can’t stop painting. With the arrival of Herrera, Gasoline’s central story becomes a puzzle that begs solving. Is Humbert a real person? Or is he Heribert’s subconscious made manifest?
The questions pile up, the point of view begins to shift from Heribert to Humbert, and we meet an alliteration of personalities: Hilda, Herundia, Hilari, Hiopolita, and Hildegarda. Heribert cares little about his wife’s affair, busy as he is with his increasing madness. He becomes obsessed with buying stamps and valuable coins. In the second half of the book, the narrative succumbs completely to Humbert. We then enter his mind, and are privy to the various anxieties of a successful artist scrambling to maintain his status.
Gasoline’s many themes continue to fly at us: What is art? Who gives it value? Where does it come from? Who owns it? Is it an illusion? Is it actually worth anything? And what do we, the audience, bring to a piece of art that an artist cannot?
Monzó doesn’t provide us with solid answers, and Gasoline is best read as a novel of ideas, a protracted thesis on the nature of the self, of creation, the things that shape our egos. He leaves his readers to ponder some heady questions while sifting through a story that is deliberately surreal and disorienting. Monzó’s dueling painters—Herrera and Herimbert—evoke the puzzle box that Italo Calvino created in his novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Both books require readers to grapple with odd structures and both authors ask serious questions while remaining playful in their prose. Gasoline demands that readers bring their own ideas and images to the page, draw their own conclusions, and paint their own pictures. This narrative strategy is Monzó’s plea that we not become passive consumers of art, or assign value simply because something is new, hip, or beautiful. He asks us to engage each work—whatever the medium—on its own terms, always asking ourselves why we bother, why we keep coming back for more.