Pierre Charles L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott carefully planned Washington DC – with its precise grid of streets, beautiful tree-lined avenues and stunning perspectives. Older cities like Boston or lower Manhattan developed more organically, the seemingly haphazard pattern of their streets dictated by the habits of those who used them.
A good short story collection can grow like a city. Either organically – as when an author writes stories and publishes them together once he has enough for a book (like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or Salinger are good examples). Or through careful planning from the get/go – think James Joyce, Jennifer Egan and William Faulkner. Obviously the critical thing is that the stories, themselves, are good. But a planned collection adds a layer of complexity for the reader. The stories can be linked or not. They can be built around a group of shared characters, set in the same historical period or geographic region. The more ambitious the author the more abstract the themes held in common become.
And then there is Quim Monzó. Whose short story collections appear so meticulously planned, but whose individual stories manage to still feel spontaneous and dashing. His new collection, a thousand morons, is exactly what it claims to be. A collection of portraits – mostly sketches – of morons. Men & women from all walks of life behaving idiotically. But these absurdities, these quirks of behavior and situation, are completely familiar. The “moron” in the title is all-encompassing. The situations are simultaneously tragic and very funny. Monzó explores the absurdity of the human condition while avoiding the obvious literary contrivances that go with it.
A young man visits his father, Mr. Beneset, in a nursing home. Their conversation is nothing special. But as they speak the father is donning lipstick, stockings, a bra and a dress. This quirk, the component that unbalances us, moves the story away from the mundane and towards the sublime.
In Love is Eternal another young man bumps into an old girlfriend. They rekindle their half-hearted romance. When he learns she is dying he decides to make her remaining days happy, only to have the situation backfire on him completely.
In Praise a simple comment by a best-selling author, a sentence of praise for a debut collection of short stories, creates a domino cascade of expectations and obligations that traps the protagonist in a farce. Praise is a prime example of how Monzó writes comedy with an underlying somberness – the impression he gives is that though these situations are silly and ridiculous to the reader, they are serious matters for his characters.
He could say: “No, I’ve not read it. The fact is that recently I’ve only been re-reading the classics.” He knows that for years when asked in interviews about the current books he was reading, Terenci Moix would always respond that he was re-reading the classics, period. In theory, it is a strategy one can only use if one really has read the classics. Because the interviewer could then ask which classic you are re-reading and, if he knows it, he would catch you out.
But that is only in theory, because in practice the ruse can be used without running into problems. Nowadays, the likelihood one will run into somebody who has read a particular classic is miniscule. Nonetheless, just in case, he ponders over what else he could say. He could say: “The fact is I read so many books that I never remember the plots. I know I liked it.” That is not a lame response. Even Montaigne was often unable to remember what he was reading…
a thousand morons is divided into two parts. Part 1 contains seven short stories of approximately 10 pages in length. In Part 2 the stories are more numerous but even shorter, about 3 pages or less. They are more like sketches or flash fictions than traditional short stories. Monzó has truncated the narrative arc, moving quickly from beginning to end with very little detail wasted between. The stories in Part 2 are snappy. Joke – punchline: the annunciation goes differently than expected, a mother watches as technology disconnects her family, we witness an inane pick-up at a cocktail party and a hostile restaurant takeover. It’s all situational irony, carefully planned and brilliantly entertaining.
It is the second collection of Quim Monzó ‘s short stories, translated by Peter Bush, to be published by Open Letter. The first, Guadalajara, was cerebral and written in a dense prose. In it Monzó played complex games with his description of space, interpretation of other authors’ works and with words. a thousand morons is very different. He’s left the literary games behind and simply held up a mirror. The reader will easily recognize his- or herself in these stories. There is nothing technically breathtaking in the writing, per se, other than its economy (which, actually, is rather breathtaking). He deftly – s0metimes brutally) depicts the emotions and eccentricities which lead his characters into the situations he is describing. According to Quim Monzó, human beings write their own farces and (in the spirit of Sartre) create their own hells. We star in our very own comedies every day without the slightest awareness that we’re doing so.
Publisher: Open Letter Books, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 41 2