December 12, 2012


Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. By Zsuzsi Gartner. Pintail. $16.

      When all you have to offer is style, you had better have a lot of it. Zsuzsi Gartner does.  Style to burn, style to toss willy-nilly about in the service of anything or nothing, style that oozes from the pores of her short stories like attenuated treacle, capturing readers as smoothly and assuredly as amber envelops insects and eventually strangles them.

      Indeed, that last sentence is a slightly sarcastic parody of Gartner’s style.  Seems overdone, you think?  Here is an actual example, from a story called “Investment Results May Vary”: “She is a thirty-eight-year-old woman lumbering around Granville Island Public Market dressed like a roly-poly Vancouver Island marmot, an animal that in real life is about to tip into the abyss, but who crookedly grins from all the banners spanning the city’s bridges, and whose smaller but no less roly-poly Beanie BabyTM version is clutched by American and British and German and Japanese children passing through upgraded security at the Vancouver International Airport, children who (kids will be kids) Olympics organizers are counting on to relentlessly badger their parents to bring them back four years from now for the Games (cue visual of Eternal Flame).”

      Think that is an aberration?  From later in the same story: “How many cubic tonnes of topsoil and almost impenetrable glacial till and granitic bedrock must be removed without recovering a single wall stud, newel post, or fragment of ceramic tile, how far into the substrata must workers delve without a trace of the chef-quality Amana gas range or the collection of stubby beer bottles (bought at auction), how many heavy-equipment operators must make limp jokes about digging a hole all the way to China and shake their heads at the homeowners’ evident derangement as they ask them to excavate just one metre deeper, how many times must their daughter sob, But I don’t want a new Costa-Rica-Survivor BarbieTM, I want my Costa-Rica-Survivor BarbieTM, before the bereft owners – who cringe at anything that smacks of the supernatural, pretend to gag at the words chakra and aura, roll their eyes skyward when anyone speaks of faith – must accept the unfathomable?”

      As these two examples among many, chosen pretty much at random, make clear, Gartner pours words forth in floods of connectedness that hint at but ultimately prove to be largely devoid of meaning. She is perfectly capable of writing pithy declarative sentences, and sometimes does – just to be fair, here is one from that same story: “Dan and Patricia are everywhere, spreading like toxic mould.”  But Gartner is so in love with her prose abilities that she puts them incontrovertibly at the service of the prosaic.  Cleverness trumps meaning, involvement, personality, viewpoints and communication in general in every one of the 10 stories in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, whose title is the title of the final tale in the book.  The stories are about – well, they are about nothing much once you strip away the stylistic glitter, which is difficult with all those rhinestone words sticking to the body suit of plot.  Largely undifferentiated and uninteresting people do largely unmeaningful things to themselves and each other for reasons that constantly hint at profundity but never quite get there, because Gartner is too busy enjoying her own cleverness.  Make no mistake: that cleverness is substantial, and will be more than enough reason for many people to read this book. It is hard not to admire an entire story called “Once, We Were Swedes” that is built around the use of phrases that double as the names of IKEA products – and that comes with a glossary at the end, translating each phrase into its IKEA equivalent.  But after reading the story, a reader trying to remember what it was about will come up empty, because it is ultimately about nothing at all.

      Gartner is so clever, and so aware of her cleverness.  Take “We Come in Peace,” which begins instead of ending with an explanatory page, this one labeled “Dramatis Personæ.”  This is an angels-visiting-humans story in which five youths, preteens and teenagers, are “inhabited” by angels variously described as “empathetic,” “practical & vengeful,” “learned,” “cheerful” and “merciful.”  It is not a reassuring story, but neither is it a downbeat one; it is, in terms of emotional affect, entirely empty.  But it is enormously well-written: “‘I wanted to disabuse them of their ill-conceived notions of martyrdom right then and there,’ Zachriel would later claim, almost five years to the day we left Arcadia Court, when a defaced For Sale sign went up on the Khan family’s front lawn and the street was a jumble of yellow police tape, ‘but I just couldn’t stop thinking about those Marys. Their lips. Their tongues.’”  So much style in the service of so little meaning.

      Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is a book that, stylistically speaking, is as salutary as a dip in the frigid ocean off the coast of Vancouver, where Gartner lives. It is intellectually refreshing, a wake-up tonic for those used to dull, plodding descriptive passages and pacing that benumbs.  But also like a leap into freezing water, it is not something that signifies much of anything beyond the Polar Bear swim itself.  It is experientially bracing but ultimately empty of anything with resonance, either intellectual or emotional, a book to admire with “who cares?” at its core.

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