This post is part of a blog tour for BC author Zsuzsi Gartner and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, organized by Penguin. The book I refer to in this review is an advance reader’s copy, uncorrected (thank you, Bronwyn!). For the rest of the tour, please visit:
I don’t think I’ve ever written a review of a collection of short stories before, and all of a sudden I know why. It’s hard. Although I finished Better Living Through Plastic Explosives a couple of weeks ago at least, I’ve been putting off the review because I haven’t known where to start. I think this is because I read short stories differently than novels.
First, if you don’t already know, I love short stories. There was a long time when I felt I might actually be incapable of reading novels anymore, though that was mostly in the five years I attended university and likely had much to do with time. Still, I harbour a special appreciation for them, and heartily wish they weren’t as shunned or readily dismissed as they still often are.
This year, though, as you may know, has been designated the Year of the Short Story (finally!), and there has recently been a deluge of fantastic, impressive collections making their way, thanks to awards and especially enthusiastic and almost militant authors, into mainstream reading. It’s heartening to meet so many online lately who either have produced new collections or love short stories too, because in general when I try to share my love of a book of stories, I’m usually shut down at the word “short.”
Those who don’t read short stories are really missing out on some very powerful fiction. Short story writing is difficult, and masterful short stories are not only bullets of brilliance but also prime examples of how fiction should be written in the first place: with a focus on effective word choice and editing (rather like poetry). Short stories also teach us how to read, which is to say not racing to the end, because then, yes, you’ll feel like you don’t “get” them. Read stories slowly, savour them, find all that’s packed in their few pages. Then take a break before starting the next one. Think.
Zsuzsi Gartner’s newest collection of stories are designed for that express purpose: to make you think. Through her fiction, she tells us to take a good look at ourselves, or else simply forces us to by using her stories as a mirror. As exaggerated as some characters may be, there is always something of us, of our experiences, we’ll recognize. She tells us to cast a keen eye, but also to to think, as readers and/or writers, outside convention—both in terms of living and creating. If anything, aside from the satire, we also learn through these stories what CanLit can also be besides serious and self-conscious, if we let it: imaginative and humourous, at the very least.
Typically short stories have a common theme, and there is no doubt that there is a connection between the 10 stories in Better Living. In fact, Gartner gives you so much to work with the stories would be easy to use as a study on modern satiric social commentary, at least, were one in need of a Lit paper topic. Gartner also explores the senses, physical as well as cultural landscape, and rather philosophical questions. I rarely mark up my books, even uncorrected proofs, but this one I not only wrote all over (!!) but also dogeared…32 times.
Better Living is mostly described as lacerating satire, but there is more to Gartner’s stories than caricatures of stereotypical suburbanites or earthy figures. While I struggled with some of the stories, felt them a bit more obscure than I could handle (this is where the thinking comes in!), I did get that there’s more to “picking on” everything from clothing to food to home to attitude. I don’t believe Zsuzsi’s point was solely to mock or be a warning or to judge. To be honest, though, I’m not entirely certain what that deeper purpose is, though I feel as though I have a grasp of it, and it’s that which all good writing reflects: in general, the very real, unadulterated humanity we embody, particularly in the form of yearning. While many of her characters and their actions or thoughts may have been stereotypical or caricatured, the emotions of the heart seemed to remain touchingly true. There is also a strong and wondrous element of magic realism in the stories, and the Canadian landscape that features effectively as a character itself throughout.
The writing in Better Living is superb: sharp, experimental, exploratory, honest, wonderfully unconventional in style, but what strikes me even more—because I did at times feel the satire tiresome (“okay, already, I get it” I wrote in the margin of one of the pages of “Investment Results May Vary”)—was the scope of the stories, from, as the back cover also lists, evolution (and de-evolution) (this features more than once) and modern manhood to international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, and terrorism. A good writer, like Zsuzsi, is first and best of all an uncannily keen observer of life (and human behaviour), the universe, and everything in between.
In the first, brilliant story, a husband records how a testosterone-fuelled barbarian (whom you’re sure to recognize) radically caused a bland yuppy cul-de-sac to de-evolve, particularly its wives; the next story, “Once, We Were Swedes,” in which two of the characters once spoke “IKEA” to each other, carries a somewhat similar theme. “Floating like a Goat,” probably my favourite story of the 10, is a rather biting, critical letter from a mother to her child’s grade one teacher. “The point of art, Miss Subramanium, is in not meeting expectations,” writes Anne, little Georgia’s mother. “Ha! Yes, that is the point! … Art, and here I include dance, music, film, and belles lettres, is perhaps the only human activity where not meeting expectations corresponds with success, not failure. … This ability of the few to defy, to subvert, expectations gives the rest of us something to live for….”
Perhaps more than any other story in this book, this one especially poses a meaningful question (all the stories end with at least one question, even those that don’t end with a question mark, though there are at least three that do), deeper than the layer of satire through which it shines: “Can we honestly say of any of us that we have our feet firmly on the ground?” And in the next story, the mascot-cum-kidnapper protagonist states, “It’s about the things you want. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s about the things you can’t have. Is it so terrible to want the things you can’t have?… Anyone?”
While there were numerous times I laughed aloud, Gartner is not all about humour, even dark humour. The title story, the last story, is a prime example of that, and it’s this in particular, the final punch to the gut—no nice ending that makes you sigh and close the cover—that characterizes Zsuzsi’s style. With her stories she forces you to pay attention, to acknowledge truth regardless of its form, to recognize the value of imagination. With her voice, she makes you remember her name.