BEING AFRAID OF the dark never seemed so sensible. The grisly nocturnal imaginings of artist Victor Mons would be enough to keep anyone awake. At various points, he pictures a "female centaur who grasped her breasts with both hands and shook her hair, tied back in a charming ponytail, as she was penetrated by a goat-bearded faun"; a "tortoise with the head and chest of a woman"; and "demons with bodies covered in excretions and excrescences, mineral and vegetable."
The sex-obsessed antihero of Spanish novelist Julián Ríos's feverish new novel, Monstruary, certainly has a way of barking at the moon. In the tradition of Caravaggio and Toulouse-Lautrec, Mons dives into the Berlin demimonde to record his observations, all the while indulging in salacious pleasures of the night. Back at his studio, Mons transmutes these experiences into art, painting grotesque scenes of copulation, masturbation, and evisceration. He titles the work "Monstruary," and his art dealer, Double Ewe, promises top dollar for the project when delivered. Each time Mons completes the series, however, he destroys it and starts anew. For Mons, art is not a finished product, but an unending act of creation.
Depicted in ten vignettes narrated by Mons's fawning biographer, Monstruary becomes a proxy for the art we never see. In each chapter, the obsequious narrator recalls a trip to some café or bar where Mons regaled his friends with stories about the inspirations for his lascivious gargoyles and fornicating half-men. Deftly translated by Edith Grossman, Ríos's prose captures the rhythms of Mons's forays into the underworld. Ríos renders Mons's odyssey in sentences that alternate between degenerate viscosity and cool high-mindedness. As with that other Spanish master, Picasso, Mons's muses are women, and a virtual catwalk's worth of them prance and cavort through this short novel. There is the he/she prostitute Mons encountered in a Renault parked on a bridge in Paris; the famous collector who, having survived a fire, spends each night in a hotel on the lobby floor, fearful of imminent flames; and the scourge of Mons's life, his first wife, who crept out each night to seduce multiple lovers.
As Ríos builds these stories like layers of paint, a larger, familiar tale emerges, one that shows how an artist never truly exorcises his demons. Unfortunately, Mons--the most formidable monster here--remains at arm's length, hermetically sealed from the world by the bluster of his genius. In his effort to evoke the mysteries of creation, Ríos--unwittingly perhaps--reveals the inherent narcissism of that process. Mons is essentially a voyeur, taking from the world while never giving back. The fact that he wrecks his "Monstruary" canvases seems less an act of artistic integrity than a self-aggrandizing gesture.
Monstruary, then, portrays Ríos's idea that artists live not for ephemeral fame, but for the darker, more sordid, moments that possess them. Fueled by his talent, Mons comes to embody the decadence rather than the generosity of art.