Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Perhaps the most effective way of capturing the overall tone of Zsuzsi Gartner’s short story collection (and I acknowledge that Trevor has already done this in his review) is to simply list the titles of the other nine stories in the book — the intriguing title of the volume comes from the final story in the collection:

Summer of the Flesh Eater
Once, We Were Swedes
Floating Like a Goat
Investment Results May Vary
The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion
What Are We Doing Here?
Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika
Mister Kakami
We Come In Peace

A quick scan of the Contents page, therefore, suggests a writer who not only enjoys providing a title that more than hints at the absurd but also one who will deliver on that promise — and indeed Gartner does. I’ll point to Trevor’s review again — he goes into some detail on a number of the stories, so I’ll concentrate on some of the others.

Consider, for example, “Once, We Were Swedes”. Alex is a teacher of Journalism 100 and tell us early in the story “as for news, baby, these kids wouldn’t notice news if it kicked down their doors in the dull of night and set their hair on fire”:

What they had were opinions. And in their opinion Journalism 100 badly sucked. Where was the equipment? Where were the DVCPRO digital camcorders, the Avid XP editing suite, the chroma wall for weather, the skyline backdrop? And why do research for news stories when you could blog or tweet what you already knew? That the two “newsroom” printers were dot matrix was cause for much hilarity. The archetypal steno pad and rollerball pen, iconic to Alex, might as well have been the mandible fragments of an iguanodon.

Who were they, these wounded children of the new diaspora with their burnt offerings of exploding car radiators and near rapes in strip-mall ATM lobbies as excuses? Who was forcing them to be here? One sallow boy with gaping nostrils had shown up last month, assignment incomplete as usual, his right hand swathed in gauze like a badly applied diaper. He held it up as if taking a citizenship oath, claiming second-degree burns. Three days later, Alex caught that same hand, unscathed save for its tattooed knuckles, giving her the finger as she wrote, yet again, on the whiteboard: Who, What, Where, When and Why?

What she should have written: Why bother?

I’ve included that extended quote because it is representative of Gartner’s approach in many of these stories. She loves lists; she also loves including modern brand names, often with the trademark symbol. Forced metaphors and similes are frequent. Virtually every story features a conflict centred on the commonly-accepted (the five Ws) being rejected by the “modern” characters in the story.

Alex is a former foreign correspondent who spent time reporting on insurgents in Chad and Sudan. Now she and her companion of seven years, Rufus, are settled in a rapidly gentrifying area of Vancouver where they “talk IKEA” — that’s where the story title comes from and it concludes with helpful page-long glossary of IKEA products that have been cited in it. And the conflict in the story between the accepted and the “new” involves not just her students but the gentrifying adults around Alex and Rufus:

Others were going on spiritual pilgrimages to Varanisi or Amankora or joining the circus. In fact, all around the city children were abandoned to aging relatives or the newly minted private kiddie kennels by their thrill-seeking parents. The older children banded together, moving nomad-like from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, performing odd pantomimes for spare change. How can we have children? We are children! the parents laughed as they formed human pyramids or checked their supply of water-purification tablets needed to survive their third-world spirit quest.

Mainly, though, there was a lot of talk about moving off-grid. The grid, that matrix of power and telecommunications, heat and light on command, was something Alex could understand. She had a healthy respect for the grid. Like IKEA, like steel-cut Scottish oats and cargo pants, the grid represented common sense.

That element of obvious satire is another common feature of the stories. In “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion”, it is introduced in a sub-section titled “The Year of the Stork”:

We watched, those of use who were too old, too divorced, too medicated (too selfish, some said, too lazy) to have adopted Chinese daughters. We watched some dozen years ago as couples living on our cul-de-sac disappeared into the smog-cloaked air of Guangdong Province — one of the most polluted places on the earth, where the clang and clatter of an almost desperate progress hearkened back to Dickensian England — and returned with tiny, clear-eyed girls whose provenance was a mystery, known only to the hollow-armed mothers who had forsaken them, and whose only forms of identification, besides the Resident alien stamps beside their names in their new passports, were the ragged pieces of rice paper, marked with their footprints in red ink, that their new parents framed behind glass and hung above their cribs in white bedrooms overlooking the ocean, as if to say, Watch your step.

The “absurd” element in this story is that the new parents, collectively, decide to follow the traditional practice of binding the girl’s feet, which provokes the rebellion of the title. It is a conceit that sparks interest but, as is the problem with many of the stories, when the reader gets to the end it just has not gone anywhere.

I did not do the author any favor by reading this collection in two sittings: despite very different circumstances in the narrative, the stories acquire a sameness in approach (and even more sameness in positives and negatives) that makes for frustrating reading. If I had come across any one of the stories in a periodical, I would have found it worthwhile — a collection of 10 merely serves to underline the author’s consistent weaknesses. As individual stories they are just fine, but taken together the sum for the whole ends up being of significantly less value than its parts.

I have been enthusiastic about this year’s Giller Jury (and their choices are still well on the positive side overall) but I can’t see why they chose this collection for the shortlist. The Giller has always been kind to the short story, a decision that I heartily endorse. I have read one of the other two longlisted story collections (The Meagre Tarmac by Clark Blaise — review should be up in 10 days) and found it clearly superior to this one. Ironically, both collections share the theme of “dislocation”; for my money, Blaise does a much better job of making it real. Gartner’s collection is a worthwhile read, but there are better ones on offer.

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3 Responses to “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner”

  1. Debbie Rodgers Says:

    Kevin, I so appreciated ed your honest review of this. Time allows one to read only so many prize-listed books and it’s good to find a reviewer who doesn’t pretend to like everything that’s on the lists.

    I can take Better Living off my TBR and concentrate on others. Thank you!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Debbie: Thanks for the kind words. I included more direct quotes in this review than I usually do — if you like the quotes, you’ll probably find the collection better than I did. Unlike some of the disappointing Booker shortlisted titles, I can see why some readers would like this book. Unfortunately, I was not one of them.

  3. BuriedInPrint Says:

    Oh, I’m repeating myself, but I was just commenting on Trevor’s post that I think listing the titles is a great idea to give a sample of the author’s style.

    I also agree that this is the kind of story collection that really must be spread over a period of time in order to afford each tale some space; there is such an intensity to her prose that even reading a single story is a little overwhelming. Having read her first collection, I did leave at least a day between each story, but ultimately I prefer more traditional short stories, so that was still rushing it for me.

    Nonetheless, I do think what she does with language is truly remarkable, and her style is vibrant and memorable; I know other readers for whom the stories I most enjoy are dull, and this is just the kind of short fiction that will entice them to give the form a try.

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