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February 18, 2014

The Not-So-Good Terrorist: Reading Zsuzsi Gartner’s “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives”

better-livingThis essay first appeared in No 83 (Winter 2011) of Canadian Notes & Queries, a publication for which it is a pleasure to be write.

Though Zsuzsi Gartner’s “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” is set with home and hearth at its centre, the story offers glimpses outside into the dystopian Vancouver that is the backdrop to most of Gartner’s collection of the same name. Speeding cars burn rubber on streets whose sidewalks are littered with overturned shopping carts, as well as “used condoms, syringes, and the inevitable orphaned muffler”. For protection, Gartner’s protagonist, “the recovering terrorist”—who is also a gardener—has erected a botanical barricade around her house. And in the story’s opening paragraphs with their vivid imagery of the barricade, we receive our first reference to the maternal as an explosive, brutal force.

The force is the proverbial Mother Nature, of course, whose foliage clumps and billows. A magnolia with “vulvic flesh… erupts in the living room window.” Blood grass is described as “knifing the air, while underground its roots go berserk.” The recovering terrorist is Mother Nature’s agent, standing in the garden with a watering can full of fish fertilizer which she drops when another speeding car tears down her street, “a fifteen-year-old future ex-con at the wheel.”

The recovering terrorist is optimistically named, so-called for her membership in a support group whose membership includes, “Sterling, the tree-spiker…, Molly, who’d waged a campaign of terror against her West End neighbourhood’s johns.” She’d discovered the group by answering a newspaper ad, and now meets for support over Peak Freans and instant coffee. She has her sponsor on speed-dial, a former AIDS activist called Dieter who’d sworn off violence after a narrowly escaping harming an innocent child.

Our recovering terrorist, however, had not had the fortune of such an escape. Twenty years before, she’d set fire to a house “to bring a petty capitalist to his knees”, the owner of a company whose chlorine-filled diapers were exported to cause testicular cancer in third-world baby boys. The house was supposed to have been empty, but she got the dates wrong, and a child died, a friend of the family. The recovering terrorist was never caught, and paid no price for her crime, so has never been able to move past it.

CNQ83-Cover_Outside.qxdHer guilt, however, hasn’t quelled her impulses towards violence, though she has found ways to divert them. The recovering terrorist, brutal Mother Nature’s agent, hosts a “gardening bitch” radio call-in show, issuing advice like, “Gardening is like warfare, and it’s time for you to call in the troops”. She recommends diatomaceous earth to kill slugs, which is “like crawling through ground glass.” She says, “An eye for an eye, as they say, a tooth for a tooth.”

Gartner further subverts maternal stereotypes by representing the recovering terrorist’s extremist tendencies as inextricably linked to motherhood. In fact, her impulses have never been so strong: “For all her past-life bravado, she finally understands what it means to be willing to die for something, or rather, someone. [Her son] is her ur-text, her Gospels, her Koran.”

The recovering terrorist is called Lucy, though she goes unnamed throughout much of the story. This is partly a satire of the pseudo-anonymity of self-help groups, but also significant because Gartner makes naming an act of colonization, of possession, and in her guilt, the recovering terrorist no longer wants to possess herself. (And perhaps she just doesn’t like her name: “…a name that sounds like fresh fruit, an ingénue of a name. Girl terrorists all seem to have perky names—Squeaky, Patty, Julie—as if they can’t quite take themselves seriously enough.”)

That the recovering terrorist has named her son Foster indicates a suspicion that her possession of him might be temporary. Like all parents, she must strike a balance between keeping him safe and giving him freedom to explore the world, to pursue his passions, which (at the age of seven) include Pokémon, and mastering the unicycle. The former passion connects mother and son, as she is fascinated by the game’s playfully violent mythology, and the latter dividing them—his hobby has turned her into a foolish caricature of parenthood, standing anxiously on the sidewalk shouting, “Careful!”

Foster, when he was younger, “like all fledgling humans”, had what the recovering terrorist describes as a “hunger for naming”, and it was his mother’s job to feed it: “Manhole covers, squirrels, body parts, graffiti, discarded condoms, black-eyed susans, facial deformities of fellow passengers riding the No. 20 bus. That got name?” Now that he is older, Foster’s hunger is satisfied with his playing cards, characters with names like Vulpix., Lickitung, Dusknoir, and Slugma. And Gartner makes implicit a link between Foster’s hunger for names, and the recovering terrorist’s own urges to “inflict order” on her universe.

She is trying hard to stay recovering. When the dangerous outside world permeates her barricade via the speeding cars in the street—when they make her fear for her son’s safety and the sanctity of her home and neighbourhood—she tries to play by the rules. She solicits City Hall to install a “speed retardant”, and finds herself tangled in red tape idiocy. Gartner satirizes bureaucratic processes, and employs a most inspired literalized metaphor for the futility of fighting the system: the civil servant without a larynx, who holds his finger to his throat to emit robotic answers to the recovering terrorist’s concerns. “She is arguing with a guy who has no voice box.”

When playing by the rules gets her nowhere the recovering terrorist feels compelled to take matters into her own hands. She’s thinking of the children, of course; “For Lucy, it always comes down to the babies.” Just as 20 years ago she’d set a fire in the name of third-world baby boys, it is for the sake of her son on his unicycle that now she considers blowing up speeding cars along with their drivers. There’s nothing gentle about the recovering terrorist’s maternal touch, which is always further undermined by her collateral damage, the little girl she killed in order to protect other children: “It’s always the mother’s fault. As they say.

zsuzsi-gartner2As her son had been troubled by unnameable things as a young child, so too does the recovering terrorist continue to be, for these unnameable things violate her need for order. Her love for her son, for example, which, she admits, “complicates things.” In fact, she’s not even sure if what she feels is love at all, or if she’s confusing love with fear, with fear of what might happen to Foster and what would happen to her if she lost him. The recovering terrorist, with her unwavering faith in “an eye for an eye,” believes wholeheartedly that her son will be stolen away from her as punishment for her crime, that history is destined to repeat itself in order for justice to prevail.

Her sponsor Deiter also fears that history will be repeated, that the recovering terrorist is losing control. “I think you want to be caught,” he says, as Lucy stops attending the support group, and begins investigating homemade plastic explosives recipes on Google. And here Gartner’s treatment of the mother-terrorist becomes particularly complicated, and is made no less so by the story’s devastating ending.

Is Lucy once again resorting to violence out of concern for her son’s well-being, or is she merely using Foster to justify the violent urges she can no longer suppress, which she refuses to take responsibility for, “the mercury semi-dormant in her veins”? Is the recovering terrorist the devoted mother she professes to be or has she delivered her son into the world to be her sacrificial lamb? Or is the world such a complex place that each of these things might be true all at once?

With such ambiguity, Gartner disrupts familiar notions of both motherhood and fanaticism, investing “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” with its terrible and disturbing power.

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