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April 7, 2011

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

There are no innocent bystanders in Zsuszi Gartner’s mind-blowing short story collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. A car shoots down the street in the title story with a “fifteen year old future ex-con at the wheel”, white trash is skewered along with the middle class in “Summer of the Flesh Eater”, you start to believe the Marmot that the parents of the kidnapped child had it coming in “Investment Results May Vary”, and even the tragedy at the end of “Better Living…” is a kind of quid quo pro. Gartner’s stories in third-person (and in first person plural) take on “types” of people, and no one escapes the bitter scrutiny. Her first-person narrators examine their surroundings on the same level as everybody else, down in the trenches, were the trenches the whole world.

(One moment of grace: the Japanese exchange student appearing riding out of a ravine on the back of an ancient tortoise. Twice. But then I have a thing for literary tortoises.)

The stories document moments on the edge of the apocalypse, a Vancouver I recognize from Douglas Coupland. Apocalypse is fitting for a city on the edge of the world, whose houses perch on the edges of mountains (which keep devouring the houses in one story). The collection begins with “Summer of the Flesh Eater”, about what happens to a suburban cul-de-sac when a piece of prototypical white trash moves in, puts his truck up on blocks, and starts to make the neighbourhood women carnivorous. Narrated as field notes after the fact, by the men whose wives are all now pregnant and straddling motorcycles, the story traces the cul-de-sac’s descent after the throwback appears in such an evolved population.

(“From time to time he’d wave to us with a monkey wrench or soldering iron. ‘Now that he’s discovered fire,” Stephen quipped one morning while squeezing into Patel’s Mini Cooper with those of us who didn’t telecommute or weren’t on paternity leave, ‘maybe’s trying to reinvent the wheel.’)

In “Once, We Were Swedes”, Peter Pan gets literal as a burnt-out foreign correspondent hits early menopause when her husband regresses to adolescence, all against the backdrop of an urban wasteland. In “Floating Like a Goat”, a failed-artist-turned-actuary writes her daughter’s teacher after teacher chastises daughter for failing to have her people’s feet touch the ground in her drawings. “Investment Results May Vary” is narrated by the unhinged and desperate, one being that kidnapping marmot I mentioned earlier.

In “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion”, said daughters disappear leaving footprints in the snow (and here, like the last story, is another parable about wanting what you can’t have). I become semi-hysterical with laughter upon the thought of Susanna, the natural-born little sister (Oops!) who wants “to be a Chinese daughter more than anything else… And in the evenings, while her father diligently quizzed Huan Yue at at the kitchen table about Chinese history… Susanna was banished ot the den with Betty and Veronica Double Digest and a mug of Ovaltine”. And then that image at the end, “little Susanna tumbling end over end across a snowy lawn with stunning alacrity, an illuminated Catherine wheel, her bare heels and tail spitting sparks”. Oh my.

“What Are We Doing Here” is a Toronto story, about an obnoxious woman drunk on her fabulousness who finds herself at a party that isn’t what she promised everyone it would be. “Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika” is the story I had the most trouble with, but upon rereading it, it had a new poignancy, knowing what I knew. (And yes, there is poignancy. It’s not just the girl on the tortoise. Gartner is scathing, but her world is also painful in its loveliness). “Mister Kakami” is a riff on Heart of Darkness. “We Come in Peace” is angels on a mission to earth to discover the experiences of the senses, inhabiting the bodies of five teenagers on another cul-de-sac.

And yes, it is fitting that suburban dead ends recur throughout the collection, and Sponge Bob underpants, and I even found myself positing connections between the Lucy in the first story and the Lucy in the final. These are not connected stories, but they fit together in a way that creates something altogether new as a whole.

I’ve got two conflicts of interest here. The first is that my husband is currently working on a project with Zsuzsi Gartner, so there was one reason I was hoping to like book. Second (and more pressing, to me) reason was that I read the final story “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” last year in The New Quarterly, and it blew me away. I’d never read anything like it before, and I’ve been wanting to read this book ever since. And I’ve been wanting it to measure up to my amazing expectations.

And it has. And now let me tell you about “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives”, which I reread tonight and finished stunned and stuttering expletives. (No, but first, let me tell you that whatever these stories are about doesn’t half tell you what their impact is. That Gartner’s stories start with premises, but they deliver. She holds nothing back, writes fearlessly, and goes where you can’t quite believe she will.)

“Better Living…” is the story of a recovering terrorist, member of the support group (and it’s absurd, I know, but it’s perfectly executed) who is fighting her urges as she tries to play by the rules, taking on city hall bureaucracy on install traffic calming devices on her street. Because she is thinking of her son, how speeding cars violate that sanctity of the life she’s made: “She loves this crazy kid so much it actually physically hurts. This love does devastating things to her intestines that only something like listeriosis generally does to saner people. Or is she confusing love with fear? For all her past-life bravado, she finally understands what it means to be willing to do for something, or rather, someone. He is her ur-text, her Gospels, her Koran.”

We see the recovering terrorist in her three guises: suburban mother, host of a militant call-in gardening show (“Gardening is like warfare, and it’s time for you to call in the troops”), and 12-step groupie. And when worlds collide, as they do, there is the inevitable explosion, and it ripped my heart out, both times. And then I immediately wanted to read it again to find out exactly how Gartner had made it happen.

6 thoughts on “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner”

  1. steph says:

    I finished this book last week and I’m still struggling with how in the hell to review it. It’s left me gobsmacked, and I’m hoping that I can come up with something articulate. It’s difficult to write well in the wake of someone who writes spectacularly.

    “BLTPE” ripped my heart out, too. I almost couldn’t believe she’d ended not only the story but the collection that way. Almost.

    I just checked my arc and I’ve dog-eared thirty-two instances of things that struck me in whatever way. And there’s marginalia. I NEVER, EVER do that. But I couldn’t help but read this book with a pencil in hand.

    It’s quite hard to pick, but I think my favourite of the bunch was “Floating like a Goat.” And then “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion.”

  2. steph says:

    PS. Your hubby did a great job on Zsuzsi’s site! Bit creepy, but cool. 🙂

    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks, Steph!

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