From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada's most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney's.
In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we'd live in if we all got what we wanted.
About the author
Zsuzsi Gartner is the author of the critically acclaimed story collection All The Anxious Girls on Earth. A former senior editor at Saturday Night magazine, she is currently creative director of Vancouver Review's Blueprint B.C. Fiction series. She is the winner of a 2007 National Magazine Award for Fiction and the recipient of numerous awards for her magazine journalism. Her stories have been produced on radio in Canada and the U.S. Gartner has lived in Winnipeg, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa and now lives in Vancouver, a utopian dystopia.
“Zsuzsi Gartner’s writing is dazzling, effortless, and clear as a bell. She’s able to crystallize a cultural moment in a way entirely her own that is both instantaneous and eternal. I couldn’t let go of it and read it all in one go.” - Douglas Coupland
“What crazy, wonderful writing this is—hilarious, exuberant, apocalyptic, heart-stopping. Gartner sees all, dissects all, loves all. An absolutely irresistible collection.” - Barbara Gowdy
Better living a promising pieceBetter Living through Plastic Explosives promised exactly what I was hoping for. This drôle repartée of "dystopian utopia" and "utopian dystopia" is narrated through what I am becoming to identify as the satirical signature ramblings of Vancouver authors. Seamlessly knitting reality with fiction, Gartner creates some kind of horrific-hilarious magic realism. One that instead of escapism, forces us to laugh at our own tragic existence, all underlined with a spooky shadow of accurate soothsaying.
Gartner reels us in, through accurate descriptions of vivid images we have seen and experienced for ourselves, and then takes a twist and turn. Extrapolates from the glimmer of light that flashes through our eyes, catches one of our fleeting thoughts, and then instantly projects a tangent a million miles off into space, to show us what it would look like if we had run with it.
For example, in the fifth story, Ancient Chinese Daughters Rebellion, she describes the adoption process and rearing of several Chinese girls in her neighbourhood. She explains how the families have allowed the girls to continue with their heritage, including “appropriate” Chinese names, Chinese holidays, language classes and foot binding. Gartner describes how the biological daughter of the family is caught pretending to have a Chinese name, and taping her eyelids back into slits. They forbid Christmas celebrations, and encourage chopstick usage, all the while having the girls hobble around with bound feet. She takes a situation, finds the hypocrisy or paradox, and then untangles it, holding it up for all to see. Kind of like when your landlord proudly marches back into your living room holding an enormous clump he’s pulled out of your drain: “THERE! That’s why it was stuck!”
And then you just kind of have to continue staring at the clump, horrified and embarrassed, and, if you are like me, probably laughing, because there isn’t really much else you can do in those situations. Learn, and hope to do better next time.
Gartner also goes to great lengths to describe what would happen if we acted on our impulses. If we overcame the staunch little invisible cubicles that keep us divided in cities. What would happen if we befriended the hairy, giant truck driving new neighbour, if we spoke our minds or cut in front of the check out line.
It’s an uncomfortable satire. It’s so painfully Vancouver.
The dear friend who lent me this book actually had it as one of their book discussion choices. One of the big questions that came out in their discussion was on where Gartner was to offer political commentary, or mock it. Whether she revered this west coast set of morals and ideals, or whether she was trying to reject them. Or if her mockery was making a mockery of mockery–a commentary on cultural commentary itself. I think that ultimately, Gartner was trying to do none of those things, but rather was trying simply to hold up a mirror. Like the banter of a little sister, pointing out the good things and the bad. Saying some things that aren’t true, just to see how they resonate, to gauge our reaction. Tossing out insults and fantasy, and the odd thing strikes home and cuts deep. Leaving you with an unintentional wound to mull over. One that leaves you pondering how accidental it truly was.
That without work, there is little return. This is how growth happens. It is rarely in the kind moments, when you are getting along happily with other people that you are forced to push yourself to overcome stigmas and communication hurdles and really grow. It’s when you are clashing. I’ve always thought that having two sisters forced me through a lot of personal growth, but it was our fighting and arguments that really give rise to personal development. It is when you are arguing over the last cookie, the pink bike, that you learn to share, to compromise and empathize, to heal. And it hurts. Growing hurts. Fighting hurts. Learning hurts. But ultimately they are the most rewarding things in the world. They are imperative in life. And so, although the mirror that Gartner holds up for us is ugly, living through plastic explosives is sometimes necessary.
A tragically hilarious read.
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