Thursday, July 26, 2012

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Short stories, as I said in my last post (sorry that it was two weeks ago – summer is messing with my schedule), make for great summer reading. Generally speaking, they require much less commitment than novels, meaning that if you forget your book at the cottage, or put it down for a few days, picking it up again is easy and relatively guilt-free. For more or less the same reasons, I think short story collections make for great book club picks. If someone can't finish (or has barely started), they can still be part of the discussion, there's less pressure not to spoil the ending, and chances are even if all the stories aren't universally liked, everyone will find one or two they connected with. At least, that's certain to be the case with Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, which was the pick for the inaugural CanLit Knit book club meeting.

I have been reading a lot of untraditional short stories lately (both successful and less so), but Gartner's collection was by far the most intriguing. Her stories are set largely on the West Coast, and mostly in Vancouver in a sort of present-adjacent. That is, the world of her characters is, on the surface at least, not very different than ours, but things happen that are just strange enough to make you question whether they're possible in the world we know. This kind of questioning, though, is what I loved most about Gartner's stories, because it forces you to wonder whether the action is actually happening, or if it just appears that way to the narrator.

Take, for example, her first story Summer of the Flesh Eater. Like many stories in the collection, it is set in a yuppie suburban cul de sac, where families eat local organic food, take their children to art camp, etc. In this particular cul de sac, however, a new person moves in to one of the houses. He is large, hairy, and not particularly sophisticated. He doesn't mow his grass, he keeps an old truck on his lawn that he tinkers with periodically. He drinks beer. He wears sweat pants. This could easily be the set up for a Portlandia-style parody, but instead, through the eyes of one of the hapless neighbouring husbands, it's threatening. Their neighbour, the narrator and the fellow husbands, insist, represents a kind of de-evolution. Things start off okay, they invite him to one of their dinner parties, and instead of bringing local wine he brings beer. They serve foam canapés and bite-sized main courses, and it's fine. Then he invites everyone to his house for a barbecue and he serves slabs of meat, so rare it's almost dripping. Then the stops cutting his lawn. He appears to be getting hairier. They swear he has started grunting more than speaking; his arms seem to have grown longer, hanging past his knees; their wives seems strangely fixated on him. This continues for the entire summer until the Darwin-quoting husbands decide to take matters into their own hands.

It's shocking and strange and uncomfortable to read, but also strangely gripping. Gartner uses her narrator to draw the reader into his paranoia and the husbands' xenophobia, only to then shake you out of it well and completely at the end. It's almost science fiction, and then it suddenly isn't, and you're forced to wonder how much of what you've read is based on the distorted perception of the narrator and how much was real. 

That kind of unsettling uncertainty pervades the majority of the stories in the collection, and even after reading several, it can still catch you off guard. Gartner so fully realizes the twisted and neurotic worlds of her narrators that it's almost impossible to see through them until she lets you, and although that doesn't always make for enjoyable reading, I found it impossible not be impressed by her story construction, which offers a different kind of enjoyment, I suppose.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, which is also the name of the final story in the book, is a challenging read. Gartner doesn't shy away from difficult topics – foreign adoption, the cult of the inspirational speaker, kidnapping and terrorism all take a turn – and she refuses to let either her characters or her readers off easy in the end. There are no pat messages or morals, but there is something satisfying in reading about issues so current no solutions have been found yet. Despite its not-quite-in-our-time feel, Gartner's stories are thoroughly contemporary, as are her societal critiques. Not everyone wants to read something challenging in the summer, but I think never approaching something challenging is a mistake. This makes Better Living Through Plastic Explosives all the more appropriate, then, because it permits you to pick it up and put it down at will, although I would be surprised if you manage to do so without reading a few stories at a time.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
by Zsuzsi Gartner
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from Penguin edition) 

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