‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’ by Zsuzsi Gartner

Better-Living-Through-Plastic

Fiction – hardcover; Hamish Hamilton; 216 pages; 2011.

In September and October I had great pleasure in reading a bounty of Canadian fiction — which had been shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize — as part of the Shadow Giller Prize. In a rush to select our “winner” I never got around to reviewing Zsuzsi Gartner’s oh-so intriguing Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. And so now, two months down the line, I am making up for lost time.

Bold, edgy satire

Unlike my fellow jurors, I very much enjoyed this intriguing collection of short stories. I liked the boldness of Gartner’s ideas, the edginess of her subject matter and the satirical voice in which she writes much of her prose.

Each of the 10 charmingly named stories  — Summer of the Flesh Eater; Once, We Were Swedes; Floating Like a Goat; Investment Results May Vary; The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion; What Are We Doing Here?; Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika; Mister Kakami; We Come in Peace; and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives — offers a subversive take on modern life in North America.

And while they are firmly rooted in reality — our obsession with material goods and brand name items, our desire to be better (richer?) than our neighbours, our quest to drink more and more coffee from chain stores, our fear of terrorism, our narcissism (shall I go on?) — Gartner isn’t afraid to spice things up with a little off-the-wall kookiness thrown in for good measure. For instance, in the penultimate story, We Come in Peace, five aliens inhabit the bodies of an assorted collection of teenagers living in a suburban cul-de-sac in North Vancouver. Their mission? To discover the zenith of each human sense. (“Barman’s best guess was four years; Elyson thought a week or so should do it.”)

In Once, We Were Swedes, my favourite collection in the book (I’ve read this particular piece three times now), a high-flying foreign correspondent becomes a tutor teaching “journalism 101” to teenage oiks — and hates it. This is a realistic enough story about the world dumbing down until Gartner adds her signature “twist”: the 36-year-old teacher finds herself ageing rapidly (she is diagnosed with early menopause) while her husband not only refuses to grow up, he grows younger.

An unusual prose style

Admittedly, this sort of thing won’t appeal to everyone. Nor will Gartner’s occasional tendency to write in an overly verbose, convoluted manner. It took me awhile to get into the swing of her style. When I read the first story, Summer of the Flesh Eater — about the unusual lengths some people will go to sort out the neighbours from hell — I was a bit flummoxed. It wasn’t the subject matter that threw me, but the way she constructed her sentences. I’m not sure whether I simply got used to her style, because by story two it no longer bothered me, or whether it’s just the first story that is written in such an odd way.

But there’s a lovely vein of black comedy running throughout. And her social commentary and her satire is right on the money.

For me, the way in which she takes the surreal aspects of real life and heightens them further appeals deeply. She reminds me very much of Chuck Palahniuk, who is one of my favourite authors. If you like his work, it’s pretty much assured you’ll like Zsuzsi Gartner’s, too.

For two more takes on this novel, courtesy of my fellow Shadow Giller jurors, please see KevinfromCanada’s review and The Mookse and the Gripes’ review.

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6 thoughts on “‘Better Living Through Plastic Explosives’ by Zsuzsi Gartner

  1. The title is a riff on the DuPont chemical company’s (for whome I used to work) old slogan ‘Better Living through Chemistry’.
    Although I’m not a big afficionado of short stories, it’s nice that they’re included in the prize alongside longer works.

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  2. It’s definitely one of those collections to take your time over. Sadly, I had to rush through it because of the Giller Prize stuff, but in the past week I’ve gone back and re-read some of the chapters and found they have rewarded me again. I’ve had a few chuckles along the way and marvelled at her use of language.

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  3. I hadn’t clocked that, Annabel, I just thought it was a terrific title for a book!
    Yes, I like the idea of including short story collections alongside novels as part of this prize, but it does make it hard to compare one art form with another. I’ve never been much of a fan of short stories, but I’ve read several collections over the past couple of years and really enjoyed them.

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  4. I’m a HUGE short story fan. (Now with that out of the way…) I don’t think collections should be compared to novels: apples and mangos or whatever. That said, I don’t think a dedicated short story prize would do anyone any good–least of all the winner of said prize.
    I don’t understand why so many avid readers claim to not read, or many others, ‘not enjoy’ short stories. I don’t say that from some lofty place of importance or self-imbued egoism rather I really just don’t get it. I’m tempted to make some television/movie comparison here but I’m woefully undereducated to do so.
    I’m done with that tangent.
    I think this review has piqued my interest more than any other of yours Kim.

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  5. There are quite a lot of short story prizes, but my favourite is the FRANK O’CONNOR SHORT STORY AWARD — I suspect it’s a good barometer of high-quality fiction.
    (The website is here, if you are interested: http://www.frankoconnor-shortstory-award.net/ )
    Glad this review piqued your interest, Chad. It’s a terrific collection, and having re-read some of the stories in this over the past week or so it has only grown on me all the more. I think she’s a very clever and inventive writer.

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