Dark transformations abound in Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
Zsuzsi Gartner’s world looks, and feels, a lot like yours or mine. Trees are budding out, the garden is calling, and once it’s tended to there’s nothing like a stroll round Granville Island for some smoked-salmon tidbits and a fresh-baked croissant.
But look out! Your house could disappear. Your child could be snatched by a disaffected environmentalist in a furry marmot-mascot costume. Those verdant magnolias and euphorbias could metamorphose overnight into giant hogweed and insectivorous monkey cups.
Things are not always what they seem. And even if they are, they’re not going to stay that way. They’re going to change—and not necessarily for the better.
“My ability to imagine the worst-case scenario comes naturally,” says Gartner, reached by phone at her East Vancouver home. “Like, it’s not something I have to sit and ponder.”
Malign transformations abound in Gartner’s new short-story collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Angels inhabiting earthly high-school students find themselves at sea in the hormonal surges of their adopted bodies. Suburban sophisticates revert to primitive mores at the slightest disruption of their cul-de-sac’s routine. Even our own city is reshaped to accommodate cultish flocks of homeless Kamper Kids, acting out grisly dumb shows while begging for change.
Vancouver remains eminently recognizable, though. Again, this is our world, only skewed and tilted so that everything we know is sliding, irrevocably, away.
Gartner’s gift for the plausibly surreal comes, in part, from her extraordinarily sensitive antennae. More than once, she says, she’s begun writing a story only to have real life creep up from behind and pull the narrative down even stranger pathways.
“For instance,” she explains, “I started something ages and ages back, just before Survivor and Big Brother premiered. I was working on something that, at the time, I thought was going to be a novel, and it was based on this woman, following her real life because she’s the most ordinary person in the entire city. Her friend at the CBC was going to pitch a show about her life, because she’s perfectly ordinary and this would be fascinating to people. It was sort of this reality-TV thing, but before reality TV started—and then it just seemed fruitless to go on after that.”
But there’s more to Gartner than simply someone with her finger on the zeitgeist’s pulse. A former journalist and Georgia Straight books editor, she’s in the habit of keeping extensive clipping files on topics that interest her—including “recovering terrorists” who are discovered, years later, leading demure suburban lives. One turns up in Better Living’s title story, wreaking bloody revenge on the weasel-faced, engine-gunning driver who’s ruining the fragile peace she’s found in her East Van neighbourhood.
“My folder for this story is at least four inches thick, and it’s red,” says Gartner. “All it says on the front is ”˜Terrorist’.”
She’s laughing now, but for many years Gartner’s own life was in danger of slipping out of control. The quietly apocalyptic yet deeply felt scenarios that emerge in Better Living owe their verisimilitude to their author’s own struggles with anxiety disorder—a condition that can turn the simplest crack in life’s pavement into an impassable crevasse.
“What an irony that my first book was called All the Anxious Girls on Earth,” she says now. “That was before I was diagnosed. I was hugely neurotic, but it was just a big joke—and all the women who read it were like, ”˜I’m an anxious girl, too.’ It was kind of like a cult.
“It always helps to know what you’re dealing with,” she continues. “I mean, for years I knew, but I didn’t get help until about four years ago, when it got really, really bad. Like, I would run to my son’s school for some reason—either we’d had an altercation in the morning or I got a bad vibe—and I’d pretend I’d forgotten to give him lunch. I’d go over with a bag with some stuff in it so I could see him in his classroom. I’d waste all this time doing these crazy things—and that’s a small example. Things were way more crazy than that.”
It’s not all a slow slide into the abyss, then: there is hope for positive change. And Gartner’s own recovery might account for the strong stream of compassion that runs through her otherwise darkly witty writing.
“Satire doesn’t have to be heartless,” she contends. “Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version is tragic. I mean, it’s got wonderful set pieces and it’s got tons of social satire, but I blubbered my way through the last chapter both times I read it. So I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive, but I think you have to work hard at it. You have to work hard at balancing the incisions and the emotions.”
Gartner’s done just that with Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, using the scalpel of her intelligence to reveal the fragility, absurdity, and wonder of this crazy life—as it is now, and as we fear it might be.