I’d never read anything by Zsuzsi Gartner until now, except a few smatterings of the Darwin’s Bastards anthology she edited, but I had heard her name, and heard good things about her first book, All the Anxious Girls on Earth. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is a title to inspire, and as reviews and comments came flooding in from friends and associates who’d acquired advance reading copies (as indeed my copy is), it seemed exactly the sort of thing I’d want to read. Gartner did not disappoint.
The collection opens with a story called “Summer of the Flesh Eater” satirizing class conflict in an upper middle-class suburb. It’s clever, and biting, and a tad ridiculous, and remains the piece I remember most vividly. A motorcycle driving, steak-grilling, lawn-ornament-owning, working-class man moves into a cul-de-sac populated by unimaginably twee upper middle-class men and their amorphously defined wives. Told from the point of view of one of the upper-crust husbands, it also reads as a comic send-up of different notions of masculinity. Since feminism shattered the concept of gender as strictly dualist, femininity has become a multiplicity of identities, some more stable and socially accepted than others (and few, of course, being entirely accepted by everybody, but that’s just people being people), but (straight) masculinity hasn’t made that same transition anywhere near as successfully. Only a few ‘masculinities,’ stable or otherwise, have achieved any kind of social acceptance, and those tend to line up pretty clearly along class lines. I’ll get into this a little deeper when I finally write about Girl Crazy, because I think a lot of what’s going on in that novel comes from that, but “Summer of the Flesh Eater” is an excellent, funny, and subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) disturbing exploration of the intersections of class and masculinity.
There’s an ambivalence about class that runs through many of the stories in this book. “Investment Results May Vary” is about a great many things (paranoia, mental illness, family, and desire), but underneath it all there’s the reality of being economically vulnerable, the strange, visceral combination of envy and contempt and anger like you can’t really know until you’ve experienced it. (I know many people who like to say they know what it’s like to be poor because they were broke in university, but that’s like saying you know what it’s like to live in Beijing because you shop at Dragon City Mall;* the few tiny similarities that exist between those two experiences are so astonishingly superficial it’s too absurd to contemplate—unless, of course, you have no clue what you’re talking about.) Gartner never cheapens any of that experience by being heavy handed, but she doesn’t let anyone off the hook for it either. Almost nobody can do that well, but she makes it look effortless.
Another of my favourite pieces in the book is “Floating Like A Goat,” which feels a lot like a Lydia Davis story, but not so pared down. It’s written as a letter from a mother to an elementary school art teacher with the brilliant name “Mrs. Subramanium.” Again Gartner gives the reader ambivalence rather than a clear path towards some definitive reading. The narrator could easily be seen as an aging art snob going slowly off her rocker as she obsesses over her daughter’s first art class, but it’s also an absolutely brilliant and moving treatise on the complexity of art and why art actually matters.
But what struck me the most about Better Living Through Plastic Explosives was how much I wanted to compare it to the recent work of that other West Coast author, William Gibson. I think the thing that makes Gibson’s recent work so strikingly now (and he has said that he does this deliberately, but has always done so, even in his books that were explicitly about some other, more imagined, time) is that objects and spaces that are designed, and used, and layered populate his books. He’s not afraid of technology, and he’s not afraid of exploring what it really is or what it means or how people use it in a way that’s organic to the world he’s writing about, rather than as props or window dressing, as so many literary authors do. Of course this means they lack the timeless quality that so many strive for, but it makes their settings intensely authentic. Gartner does much the same thing, to a lesser extent, but leaves out the architecture of the popular thriller. I can’t even tell you how deeply, deeply satisfying that is to me as a reader. I’m not constantly trying to puzzle out, as if stranded in some thick literary fog, which of the last two or three decades the author is vaguely gesturing at, assuming she’s actually got something that specific in mind. Cellular phones, email, GPS grids and the Internet are all native to Gartner’s fiction, and it makes me tingle right down to my toes. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, and I’m sorry it took me so long to finally write about it.
Update: I was going to give this a pass, but it’s stuck in my head, and I can’t let it go. I think Better Living Through Plastic Explosives could be very satisfyingly read alongside Hal Niedzviecki’s most recent short story collection, Look Down, This Is Where It Must Have Happened (you can read my review of it here). Gartner and Niedzviecki tackle a lot of the same material, but from different directions. In particular, the titular “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives,” which closes Gartner’s book, and Niedzviecki’s “Special Topic: Terrorism,” which closes his, are so conceptually and thematically similar that they could have been composed in tandem.
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives was my fifth selection for the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge.
*For non-Torontonians: Dragon City Mall is a small shopping centre on Spadina Avenue, the main thoroughfare of our local Chinatown.