Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sneaky Stories: Monzó’s Morons

As someone who reads fiction of all lengths but much (¡much!) prefers novels, it felt like a slightly strange twist of blogging fate to first receive two story collections… and then read them in rapid succession: Quim Monzó’s A Thousand Morons, in Peter Bush’s translation of the Catalan collection known as Mil Cretins, and Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka. What struck me most—beyond the reminder that I truly do love short stories and should read more of them—is that the two writers’ stories had such opposite effects on me. Monzó’s stories about the absurd and alienated are sneakily enjoyable, slow-burn stories I didn’t necessarily realize I’d enjoyed until I finished them. Levy’s stories are twitchily enjoyable, instant gratification with mini-epiphanies that completely absorbed me. Today I’ll look at a few of Monzó’s stories; Levy’s are up next time.

Here are a few of the morons I particularly enjoyed:

My favorite story may well be the first, “Mr. Beneset,” about a son who visits his father in an old people’s home. The son finds his father at a mirror: “He is straightening some lingerie, black and cream lingerie, the sort the French call culottes and the English French knickers.” Mr. Beneset tells his son to knock before entering, but, oh well, it seems Dad Beneset didn’t hear the knock because he wasn’t wearing his hearing aid. It’s not the touch of voyeurism or lingerie that appeals to me, it’s the quiet, sad absurdity of Mr. Beneset’s life and advanced age, housed in a place where people die (“leave”) around him, where life is lived by the meal schedule but there’s freedom and time to fuss over lipstick and nail polish. But not, it seems, to shave one’s legs for wearing tights.

“Love Is Eternal,” the second story, begins with the chance meeting of a former boyfriend and girlfriend. They get back together… and each of them does something moronic, bringing the story to an O. Henry-ish twist ending that implies a special sort of hell for the narrator boyfriend. I think personal hells might be a key to being a Monzó moron: these people live in their own private torture zones. I enjoyed “Praise” a lot, too: writer Daniel Broto is asked in an interview to name a book he recently enjoyed: he mentions one and then has to live with the consequences, partly because he raises the expectations of the man who wrote the book he cited. People! Do us all a favor! Never tell someone “We should meet for coffee!” unless you mean it.

Being a long-form fiction kind of reader, I can’t say the microstories interested me as much as the longer ones, but some were fun. “Beyond the Sore,” with a man who’s asked to comment on a book he hasn’t read, focuses on the issue of how to respond without being a total moron… what a pseudo-problem! Honesty is so obviously the path of least moronism, I don’t get why people can’t get over this one and tell the truth. And then there’s “The Fork,” which addresses an age-old question: If a fork falls on the floor and nobody notices, did the fork fall?

A fork falls in one of Levy’s stories, too, so I’ll pick up there next time…

Disclaimers: I received a review copy of A Thousand Morons from Open Letter, a publisher with which I always enjoy discussing literature in translation, including a specific piece I’m translating. Open Letter also gave me not one but two tie-in A Thousand Morons t-shirts… hmm, a subtle hint? The shirts have the same design as the book cover so have a “special” look when worn on a body. Thanks a lot, Mr. Beneset!

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