Friday, September 30, 2011

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

Zsuzsi Gartner employs bracing black humour in her collection of stories, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. They are set in or near Vancouver, often in a cul-de-sac. Random elements pop up more than once: terry cloth shorts; children riding unicycles; a lost person showing up astride the back of a giant turtle. Each story, however, is inventively unique. Some incorporate fantastical elements, like the angels who inhabit the bodies of teenagers for a while in We Come in Peace.

If forced to pick a favourite, I'd choose Floating Like a Goat, which is in the form of a letter from a mother to her daughter's Grade one art teacher, written "in such a deeply caffeinated fugue state that I fear my letter to you will come across as intemperate." I was sympathetic to this mother, incensed by the teacher's imposed strictures, such as insisting "that when six-year-old children draw people or animals their feet MUST be touching the ground." " 'I guess she's never heard of Chagall,' I said to Georgia, trying to sound offhand, as I'm well aware that it's considered verboten to undermine a teacher's authority."

Gartner isn't shy about exposing the comical underside of modern society. It's like she has a sharp knife point to deftly slip under one's guard, moving her readers from laughter to full danger alertness.

Readalikes: The thorny vine pictured on the cover, the humour and the supernatural elements all brought Kelly Link's Pretty Monsters to mind. For more social satire, try anything Ali Smith. Gartner's Investment Results May Vary, with its litany of "huh, huh, huh" at the end reminded me of one of Lorrie Moore's stories from Birds of America. Others brought Jackie Kay's story My Daughter, the Fox (in Wish I Was Here) to mind. I could keep going like this, but really, Gartner has her own fabulous style.

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