Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
by Zsuzsi Gartner (2011)
Pintail (2011)
216 pp

Last year I had some problems with Giller shortlisted story collection This Cake Is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky (my review here). In the acknowledgments page of this year’s third story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, author Zsuzsi Gartner thanks Sarah Selecky for “jetpacks of psychic fuel.” Knowing nothing more about this book or about Gartner’s relationship with (or literary similarities to) Selecky, just that mention made me wary to read this story collection. I can say, with certainty, that Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is much better than This Cake Is for the Party. The writing here is spontaneous and interesting, if not always (or even mostly) on target. Gartner eschews both formal and substantive realism (one story ends with a page-long string of “huh”; a marmot has a point of view; a man digresses to adolescence) as she pokes and prods contemporary North America, while Selecky’s collection was rather conventional and drab and rote. All of that is not to say that I think Better Living Through Plastic Explosives to be a good short story collection. Cheers to Gartner for stripping whatever constraints she felt within realism and cheers to her for making each sentence its own, but the end result is a scatter-shot style that says little and that is often quite unfun even as it basks in its freedom.

This collection contains ten stories. Their titles should give you some sense of Gartner’s ability to intrigue: “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.” What I found when I read each story, though, was (much like that page-long string of “huh”) interesting details and clever observations piled on top of each other but teetering well before it reached anything. For the most part. At the same time, I did read with interest each story, and it was only at the end of each that I realized I didn’t really like it for its too many missed hits.

A good example of this is the first story, “Summer of the Flesh Eater,” subtitled, “Field Notes on the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type.” In this story Gartner takes us to one of the collection’s many cul-de-sacs, and, as usual, what looks contented and civilized on the outside is really a collective mess on the inside, going nowhere, of course. Here’s how the story opens:

Understand that pity is not what we’re looking for. We are men, we remind each other as often as we can, and we must bear that burden. Forgetting is what got us into trouble in the first place.

This third-person plural narrator is made up of the men on the cul-de-sac, and they represent the peak of masculine evolution. All of that evolution, though, does nothing to prepare them for the arrival of a lesser evolved man who shows up with a truck and loads of red meat. I think this is an interesting, if not entirely new, idea. Gartner will need some style to make all of this add up to something new. Sadly, one of the first express ties to the evolution motif (as if we needed it to be explicit) doesn’t really go anywhere:

But this isn’t about Kim. You could say this is about evolution.  You could say we’ve developed a deep personal appreciation for Darwin, the man and the theorist — his dyspeptic stomach, his human frailties, his ability to cling to contradictory desires. We’ve weighed anchor aboard the Beagle, if only in our dreams, charted our own Galapagos of the soul and found it wanting.

Quite honestly, I have no clue what this passage is saying. I cannot make sense of the Beagle metaphor in the last sentence, and it doesn’t seem like the kind of thoughts that would occupy these “evolved” male specimens. Just check out how Gartner portrays them (and presumably, to her they really do represent contemporary male contentedness). Here they are completely befuddled when they attend a barbecue hosted by the new neanderthal neighbor:

The “Q” stood in the centre of the yard like a Mayan shrine in the cloud forest of Cobán, feathered in smoke and snapping and spitting as fat hit the fire. Mosquito torches on bamboo poles flanked the barbecue. (Trevor’s wife deemed this “thoughtful.”)  The patio table was leaden with platters of raw meat, the variety defying categorization, but our host was all too willing to lead a tutorial. There were slabs of porterhouse steaks, rib-eyes, short ribs, spareribs, pork loin chops, lamb shoulder chops, and lamb leg steaks. He eschewed terms like “well-marbled” in favour of “nice and fatty” and smacked his palm down soundly on cuts he deemed particularly “bodacious.” We hardly need point out that there wasn’t a rub or a marinade in sight.

I do like that passage, though I’m not sure I’ve ever met men quite like this. Oh, sure, a man like this, yes, but as a type? No. These men become even more unrecognizable in this later passage that ties back nicely to the barbecue:

Patel made his Lapsang souchong-smoked duck breast with pomegranate sauce. Kim made dolmades using grape leaves from his own garden. Then there was Karlheinz’s oyster foam-filled agnolotti, Trevor’s quail stuffed with raisins and quinoa, and Stefan’s saffron risotto with truffle oil and mascarpone. Marcus’s silky black cod with Pernod mole sauce (70 percent pure, fair-trade cocoa) filled the role of dessert.

Well, the story was interesting, but the metaphor didn’t work for me — at least, not when it is so often smacked across the page — and in the end, while I could follow this story, I didn’t follow whatever it was trying to say about masculinity — and it was obviously trying to say something. Because of the faulty caricatures, “Summer of the Flesh Eater” came off vague and general.

Masculinity also gets a bit of a knocking in the next story, “Once, We Were Swedes,” when the narrator’s husband, in his forties, starts to revert to adolescence, thrilled to start the new Warcraft game, sifting through his Pokemon cards at night. But that is more of an interesting tick to this story about a journalism teacher who, a couple of years ago, spent time in the violence of Sudan (her name, is it a coincidence? is Alex Dinesen). Now she’s teaching students, who don’t care at all, about who, what, where, when, why and how in a room with a terrible smell. How Gartner describes that smell still has me confused: “the fumes that insinuated their way into her sinus cavities and then slumped there like a belligerent toddler, half-dressed and shrieking.” From what I recall, there is no toddler in this story, and how does a half-dressed and shrieking toddler represent a smell, especially with no other reference point in the story? This isn’t the only place I had to stop and think huh? — though not for a full page — when I came across a comparison that did nothing more than draw attention to itself. Here’s another: “He smelled hairless, like peeled cantaloupe.” So, does he smell like peeled cantaloupe? Or is it that the smell of peeled cantaloupe has a hairless quality, and so does he?

Well, as I said above, I think it’s great that Gartner is taking formal and substantive risks. One thing I did not like, though, was her treatise and defense disguised as the short story “Floating Like a Goat,” which is subtitled, “Or, what we talk about when we talk about art.” “Floating Like a Goat” is a reference to the Chagall painting where a goat floats above the ground. This story is made up of a letter from an upset mother to her six-year-old daughter’s art teacher. On the last report card, the teacher reported that the daughter is “not yet meeting expectations.” The husband is not concerned, “It’s only art, my husband told me. She’s only in grade one.” But the mother whips up the fury, based on her own discouraging experience as a failed artist (she’s now an actuary, calculating risk but without taking any), to write “a defense of artistic expression, not of my daughter’s abilities. Or rather, a defence of art itself.”

One “rule” the teacher has is that when the children draw people or animals, their feet should be touching the ground — hence the reference to Chagall’s goats. This sort of realism, though, should not be encouraged, says the mother. If that is what is expected, then good for her daughter:

The point of art, Miss Subramamium, is in not meeting expectations. Ha! Yes, that is the point! I surprise even myself with this revelation. So Georgia, in “not meeting expectations,” is, in fact, at the top of her class. Art, and here I include dance, music, film, and belle lettres, is perhaps the only human activity where not meeting expectations corresponds with success, not failure.

I just couldn’t help reading this story as Gartner’s own defense of this story collection, of the criticisms she may expect since these stories do not conform to conventional ideas of form and substance. She’s defending those smells that are represented by peeled cantaloupe and that half-dressed child. The story is made more interesting by its look at the heart of an artistic actuary with a chip on her shoulder, but in the end it feels like a personal manifesto for something that really doesn’t need defending anymore. After all, Gartner’s prose is highly influenced by, among others, the late David Foster Wallace, with its paragraph lists (see the food above) and its constant — constant! — references to culture, including the little ™ symbol — no, if Gartner needs to defend her writing it is because it doesn’t match those she is emulating, and there’s no better example of this than the final story in the collection, “Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.”

In this story, we meet Lucy, an ex-terrorist — no, that’s “recovering” terrorist. She’s moved away from her days of fighting corporate corruption after her involvement led to the death of an innocent child. Lucy now has a husband and her own innocent seven-year-old son. I think that’s an interesting premise to a story, and I think Gartner has the writing ability to make it pay off, but she insists on injecting the strange only, it appears, for the sake of strangeness. See, Lucy is recovering with the help of her support group, complete with its twelve-step aphorisms. Years have passed since the tragedy she was involved in, and her conspirators are being release from prison. They are celebrities now. Annie Liebovitz, making just one of a few appearances in this collection, is photographing them.

It is sad, to me, that the many interesting ideas in this story collection become reduced by excess, whether that excess be the off-target metaphors or that sense that something strange is here and wasn’t edited out simply because it was strange, as if that adds a degree of irony or gravity. So, I didn’t like Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, though, to be honest, I did enjoy getting to know some of Gartner’s work for its pure desire to do something different, even though it fails.

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