Monthly Archives: March 2011

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives,by Zsuzsi Gartner

In her new short story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner cuts a satirical swath through the early years of the new millennium. Everyone and everything is fair game, with Gartner’s laser sights set on those who smack of entitlement or hubris. Whatever we now call yuppies and their older demographic successors are and apparently always will be up for grabs, and Gartner takes no prisoners in terms of mocking their houses and lawns, their dietary, career and fashion choices, their family planning and rearing decisions and more. Gartner arranges to mock and reproach them from diverse angles, sources and perspectives. She is also quick to point out that anyone with economic or social pretensions can become them in a heartbeat, and can be brought down a sharp notch or two as quickly and calamitously.

Earthy and quirky comeuppances come to the proud and prissy from everyone from a lusty, barbecue-loving redneck, to another variant of tattooed white trash in a bass-thumping muscle car, to a disquietingly media savvy native elder destined for bespoke suits (with ambitions to become the First Nations Ivan Reitman, don’t you know). The range of characters marching through Gartner’s dizzying stories is breathtaking, not without their piquantly realistic and emotional moments, but ultimately verging on cartoonish, with a didactic, Coyote versus Road Runner sense of who will prevail and why.

So, fleeting jabs aside, if we’re not really meant to wholly and realistically identify with any characters or situations in these stories, what is Gartner trying to achieve with this collection? Is it pre-apocalyptic magic realism, post-apocalyptic surrealism or some other variant of an otherworldly, off-kilter, something-is-not-quite-right-here rising tide of dread of apocalypse in progress, vaguely reminiscent of DeLillo’s White Noise? If it’s any of those, she often overshoots that effect, sometimes grievously. Are we just being lectured at in an over-the-top, albeit highly imaginative fashion?

But then again, something stirring happens when you breathe and digest each story, and set the entire collection down. Weeks later, images and scenarios that seem overwrought as you’re reading them have distilled down from a headlight glare to a haunting, still potent glow after the fact: adopted Chinese daughters tiptoeing grotesquely across the starlit snow; a couple rapidly growing apart by heading in opposite Dorian Gray-esque directions; suburban housewives happily squatting like cavewomen around a fire pit; a bewildered but determined movie producer in sullied designer trousers struggling through the West Coast rainforest; most memorably of all, the final roar of a car approaching that will exact a harsh but symmetrical revenge.

Recognizing but perhaps not best articulating that I appreciate but am not sure what to make of the intriguing alchemy going on with Gartner’s vibrant but thorny stories, I’m delighted to discover that others are being invited to explore Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and other recently published short story collections in a new initiative. I’m interested to hear their reactions and conclusions. How they are going about it in this, the Year of the Short Story (YOSS), is detailed here by the incomparable Book Madam. The YOSS manifesto, spearheaded by Giller Prize nominated author Sarah Selecky, is showcased here. Ms Selecky best captures the special mystique of short stories:

“There’s nothing like that punch in the stomach that you feel at the end of a story, when the question of the story (not the answer!) is revealed in its wholeness, and you don’t know what to do with yourself because it’s so troubling, or beautiful, or impossible, or uncertain.” – Sarah Selecky

I’m wondering if it’s the questions revealed by Zsuzsi Gartner in the stories of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives that I’m still tussling with now. I think so, and I think that’s a good thing.

Thank you to Penguin Canada for providing a review copy of Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner.

The Canterbury Trail, by Angie Abdou

The Canterbury Trail, by Angie Abdou

Writer Susan Swan recently mused on Twitter, “Thinking about the need to show the dark side of fictional characters and how I always want to protect them and show their best side. Wrong.” (1) Did Angie Abdou muse similarly as she lived for some time (the novel first took form as her PhD thesis) with the colourful cast of characters populating her latest novel, The Canterbury Trail? It would seem so, and it would seem she made the right choices in terms of protecting or not protecting them, and showing both their sunny and dark aspects.

Abdou’s greatest gifts as a writer are sheer storytelling prowess, assembling persons, places and things in potent and compelling combinations. She melds that appreciable skill with a fearlessness about presenting her characters with all their warts, making them patently unlikable in some cases, and still managing to endear them to the reader by the end of their adventures. She does this in surprising ways in both recent Canada Reads contender The Bone Cage and The Canterbury Trail.

The range of disparate characters in The Canterbury Trail – stoner ski and snowboarding bums, working class snowmobilers, lesbian hippies with spiritual pretensions, an overly striving real estate developer and his pregnant wife, an urbanite freelance lifestyles reporter, all thrown together in a mountain ski cabin under increasingly treacherous social and meteorological conditions – seems stretched and thinned out to predictable caricatures at the outset. The pleasant surprise is that most of that ambitious cast gain some depth or unique traits before a key character hovering in the background throughout – Mother Nature – takes charge in the end. That’s testament, by the way, to the virtues of sticking with a book to the very end. The Canterbury Trail‘s payoff in that regard is immense.

What we learn from bringing a cross-section of society into pressure cooker close quarters was also the premise, at least in part, of the classic work from which The Canterbury Trail takes everything from its title, to character names, physical traits and profiles. Abdou commented recently on how Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English stories The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century, so informed her novel:

“That’s the contemporary pilgrimage where I am: that trek through the backcountry,” says Abdou. “And, in a way, Chaucer used the pilgrimage to bring together people who would normally never spend time together in medieval society – the fighters, and the Priors, the workers – and so then he had a little segment from everyone in society where he was able to satirize them. So that’s the part that’s Chaucer: I get the rednecks and the hippies and the young ski bums and the developer guy. They’re all together, and they wouldn’t normally interact.”(2)

While Chaucer’s work clearly laid a strong foundation for the writer, it’s less of a prerequisite for the reader’s enjoyment and edification. Sure, it might give you a chuckle if you know that Alison, the rather lascivious freelance journalist, is gap-toothed. You don’t need a grounding in Chaucer, though, to appreciate the cultural clashes, connections and revelations between the skiing “pilgrims” of The Canterbury Trail, or to relish the authentic suspense Abdou builds through a gradual but genuine investment in the wellbeing of the various characters.

1. @swanscribe, February 23, 2011

2. Pilgrim’s Progress: Angie Abdou talks about The Canterbury Trail
by Mark Medley
National Post, The Afterword