Monday, 7 September 2015

The curious complications of Manuel Gonzales

Full title: The Miniature Wife and Other Stories
Author: Manuel Gonzales
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 304 pages, paperback
Publisher: Riverhead (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s pretty hard to find a word able to satisfactorily define the kind of prose Manuel Gonzales writes. One might be tempted to say fantasy, because there’s a lot of out-of-this-world stuff in the volume (zombies, werewolves, swamp monsters, unicorns etc.), but the term wouldn’t do justice to anything in its proximity. Fantasy is about Lala-lands (I’m sure there are better words than these to name them, but what the heck), with no connections to the one we’re in. Well, that definition wouldn’t even scratch the surface, because most of Gonzales’s style relies precisely in the realistic effect they deliver, in spite of all the crazy things he makes up. Then how about magical realism? That would explain pretty well the mix of reality and less-than-reality that scream at you from every single story. But wait. Magical realism goes about doing things so as to avoid drawing anybody’s attention to the artificial nature of the ‘magic’ involved. A magical realist who writes short stories (let’s say in the tradition of Julio Cortázar and/or Gabriel García Márquez) would have butterflies filling a room just like that, or an inundation in an apartment overflowing into the street – and there would be no wink addressed to the reader. But with the stories in Gonzales’s collection the reader is constantly given that friendly nudge in the ribcage: the got-it? kind of jolt that indicates that hey, don’t forget, this is a work of fiction.
Here’s how a story by Manuel Gonzales takes place. We’ve got a situation. A crazy situation. I mean a crazy-crazy situation. Like a music composer speaking through his ears. That’s just to bring a simple example to the table. Then, once the reader has rolled his/her eyes, the party starts. Everything that follows is a series of reinforcements to the framework of this outlandish situation. In most cases, the situation is so out of touch with reality (I was going to say so schizophrenic) that the reader’s attention is almost guaranteed. And once you’re in, Gonzales can work on further complications. They are pretty good pieces of narrative work, these complications. And they manage to build a universe of Gozalesque atmosphere, where everything is possible and everything is likely to turn really bad.
Ok, now. My favorite. We’re talking about a story only six pages in length, but an excellent example of a narrative complication that would look great in a film. “Cash to a Killing” is about these two guys, professional hitmen by the sound of it, who are observed while burying their latest victim. That’s the gist. One can see it with ease. But things get complicated. And more complicated. And more complicated. So everything evolves from bad to worse to disastrous, only to finish in a comic twist so sad that it’s actually tragic. Summarizing the story would be cruel and an unpardonable spoiler to boot. So I guess I can only recommend it. Anybody interested, remember: “Cash to a Killing.” Luckily, it’s been published in 2007 in the Esquire, so available online.

Manuel Gonzales. Source: The Daily Beast
Now, to speak of the title story, let’s say it’s a modern version of Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput. As the title indicates, though, the little men have been replaced by the narrator’s wife, who’s turned small because the narrator himself, a mad scientist of sorts, has done it to her. Complications appear here too. The wife doesn’t like being belittled so. Literal diminution wouldn’t sit well with anybody, male or female, would it? So she sets up traps for the husband, he isolates her in a miniature house, she cheats on him with a colleague who’s miniaturized himself to do the job, he wants to kill her, she wants to kill him, and the story goes on and on. It doesn’t even reach a clear conclusion, if that helps. But that’s exactly what makes it interesting: the whole infrastructure of events and incidents that seem absolutely okay once we have accepted the idea that there’s a character turned into a mini-person.
What’s also noticeable in the volume is the series of so-called “Meritorious Lives.” Five of them. They are short pieces that outline the life of fictional characters but in ways that mimic the tone of biographies. Hence their titles, of course. Take this one for an example: “Juan Manuel Gonzales: A Meritorious Life.” Could the character mentioned in the title be the author? No it cannot be. Not only because of the extra Juan in the appellation but also because the character is said to have lived a couple of centuries ago (1804-1848). An innkeeper and a forger of letters, this Juan Manuel Gonzales participates in a comedy of situations that, in the spirit of the collection’s many twists, turns out to be a hard-to-distinguish conundrum between humor and tragedy. Once again, complications upon complications, in a story whose central event is an epistolary exchange between two young lovers whose love is interdicted by the boy’s tyrannical father. Juan Manuel Gonzales is not the protagonist of the story. And yet, he gets caught up in the tangle and becomes important; although his importance is somehow put under a question mark by the surprise in the end. With a story line that emulates the classic narrative of eighteenth and nineteenth-century romances, this piece brings about mistakes and misunderstandings to levels similar to say, some of Borges’s twists. And all in no more than three pages.
With all this, in nine cases out of ten, it looks as thought the author had a helluva lot of fun writing. You get this feeling that he enjoyed adding layers and incidents to a text so much that he just couldn’t stop. That’s why stories rarely end where the reader expects. There’s often one more thing to say, one more detail to add. And so, as it sits, the collection might very well be unfinished. At the end of the day, there’s so much more a story can contain.