my tragic right hip

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October 27th, 2011

#76 – Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Short stories are epic and amazing things to read on the subway. They give you the false impression that they are “lighter” reading than novels because of their length, but I’ve been finding that so many of the collections I’ve read as of late pack an emotional punch that knocks me out after ten rounds a-la the Ali rope-a-dope, and none walloped me harder than Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner.

Like many obnoxious city dwellers, I pride myself on my political correctness. I urge my life forward in terms of pop culture knowledge and feel some pride that I can still scramble in some quality viewing in terms of films, television. I’m achingly earnest about my interest in environmental issues, even if we struggle on a daily basis with our consumption and teaching our families about our feelings about how much stuff there is in the world. But Zsuzsi Gartner takes a machete to pop culture, and slices through it with her razor-sharp prose, like I said on Twitter, and inevitably makes you think about it in a way that consistently questions my own steadfast resolve in my own “goodness” (if that makes any sense).

In many of her stories, there’s an element of the fantastic — a man reverts back to the stone age, becoming more neanderthal by the day, barbecues become open pits, women turn feral, and a young girl rides out of the ravine on a tortoise. The group of neighbours, all healthy, wealthy and utterly politically correct, can’t understand what’s so appealing about ripping open a 2-4 and roasting giant, hulking hunks of meat over an open flame. Houses disappear due to mud slides (I imagine) but never claim a human life. Young, adopted Chinese girls fly up into the air and are no longer human. The stories are awe-inspiring. Both in the sense that Gartner’s awe-inspiring imagination is unparalleled in Canadian writing (I think) but also in how she manages to create a world that’s so utterly familiar and terrifically strange at the same time. I’s kind of like Fringe, in a way, with two realities — the one in which I live every day and the other where it’s not strange to see a blimp floating on by.

There’s a particularly beautiful story within the collection where a mother writes a letter (I know! I actually liked something in the epistolary format) to her daughter’s art teacher that’s a wonderful defense of art in general (even if it’s primarily about a mother raging against an unfair and quite ridiculous teaching moment). And yet, Gartner doesn’t let anything slip through her nimble fingers — the teacher herself is eviscerated for her style of dress, a piercing becomes an easy target for mockery, and there’s an element of bravado in Gartner’s ability to open up the world to her extraordinarily critical eye. Yet, the undercurrents in the story, the fact that the mother herself is a failed artist, that art remains an extremely difficult subject to teach and that unhappiness can flow out of one even in the most awkward of situations, bubble up to the surface as she works through her anger at the teacher’s wardrobe, etc.

All in all, sometimes, in my current state of mind, that is, having little to no attention span and feeling utterly exhausted, I found myself reading and rereading certain things just to be sure I knew exactly what was going on. And still, there were moments when the prose was so fresh, so exacting, so intense, that I got lost in the stories a little bit. There was a moment when I emailed a good friend and asked if she had the same kind of experience — vacillating between loving the stories so much it hurts or wondering if I’m simply not smart enough to fully understand what was going on. Either way it didn’t matter because my enthusiasm for this book didn’t waiver. Every single person who asked me if I was enjoying it around the office got the same answer: YES YES YES. What a breath of fresh air for my cobwebby mind.

One Response to “#76 – Better Living Through Plastic Explosives”

  • Kailana says:

    I had this out from the library, but I am a bit burned out on short story collections lately. I want to get back to it, though. I really enjoyed the cover and style of it, though.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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