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.