Characters on the verge of a nervous breakdown

Why, Why, Why?
By Quim Monzó
119 pp. Open Letter Books. $14.

This may be the best short story collection I’ve ever read.

There is something so appealing about Catalan writer Quim Monzó’s stories. At first glance they seem somewhat fantastical, often consisting of a series of events that result in the characters’ lives spiraling out of control. But upon closer inspection, they feel all too likely.

Many of these stories — “Instability” and “Trojan Euphoria” serving as the two clearest examples — seem predicated on the unfolding of utterly bizarre what-if scenarios, and yet despite the typically tragic way these stories unfold, they have a sort of Seinfeldian quality about them. The things that happen to these characters are so absurd, yet exist within the realm of possibility.

It’s sort of like Larry David got together with Chekov. Imagine how that’d turn out and you have something like “Why, Why, Why?”

Towards the end, Monzó takes on popular fairy tales, but adds a twist.

What happens after the “Happily Ever After” you remember from childhood? In Cinderella’s case, Prince Charming tires of her and she discovers he’s been having an affair with BOTH stepsisters.

The Prince comes and gives Sleeping Beauty a kiss, and everything’s as you remember, but then he looks further into the woods and sees another Sleeping Beauty stretched out, asleep. Has he chosen the right one?

If Monzó adorns these classic tales with modern day anxieties, then what he does with the stories set in the modern day is absolutely genius.

In “Married Life” a couple lie in their separate beds in a hotel room. Their relationship has gone awry, and he no longer knows what to do to get the spark back. And then they hear a couple having sex in the next room.

Many of these stories are just two or three pages in length, and yet each really packs a wallop.

In “Hand on Heart,” a couple promises to be totally honest with each other and find that this leads to their relationship unraveling on that very night.

In “Why do the hands of a clock turn the way the hands of a clock do?” a man is approached by his wife’s lover. The lover has tried to break things off with the wife, and can’t. The wife is hopelessly in love with him. He begs the husband to please do something, to demand that his wife break off the relationship. The husband replies that if the man really wants his wife to tire of him, then he should love her back, he should do everything the husband has done for her, including marrying her.

In “Admiration,” a woman who is obsessed with a certain novelist meets him after a book reading and the two begin a relationship. They move in together and have children. This leads the novelist to abandon writing novels to get a job where he’s able to better provide for his family. The wife now finds her husband boring, and learns that her new favorite novelist is set to have a book reading in the city the following afternoon.

There are many more, all of them deliciously dark, all of them involving relationships of one kind or the other. They contain both the element of tragedy as well as the wicked humor of thwarted social convention.

These are characters on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and they too often think and feel like you.

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