Better Living Through Plastic Explosives: Book Review

I'm participating in a blog tour for Penguin Canada's new release, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Vancouver writer Zsuzsi Gartner, which I jumped all over chiefly because of the title (that's a kick-ass title, is it not?) and the comparison to Lorrie Moore. The last collection I read that was compared to Lorrie Moore fell quite short, although I allowed that this might be in part because I adore Lorrie Moore with a slavish, stalkerish, slightly creepy degree of adoration. However, this book richly deserves the comparison.

Gartner has a firm grip on the grating jargon of post-modernity and a knack for subverting it with a wicked, clear-eyed sense of humour. She effortlessly skewers practitioners of what one character calls "spiritual wankery". Motifs are white teeth, homeless people, and the scene in The Sound of Music where the nun removes the distributor cap from the Nazis' car - now that I think of it, this little triad is not a bad way to sum up the last century or so.

In Summer of the Flesh Eater, a mulleted, cut-offs sporting "specimen" moves into an enclave of enlightened, evolved couples consisting of professional women and stay-at-home Dads who favour dinner parties featuring honey-glazed fiddleheads and syringes of wild morel cream. Soon, the neighbourhood's Ritalin-infused children are disdaining their "computer animation camps" and "Urbane Kids Cook! classes" in favour of the "root beer and processed meats" dispensed by the newcomer. "It had all been amusing at having a Molson ad shot on your very own street" mourns the narrator, imposing a Darwinian filter over the catastrophic collision of people who might as well be different species.

In Once, We Were Swedes, a journalist tries to inspire her disaffected students while suffering from the effects of having witnessed atrocities in the Sudan. There are whispers of dismembered bodies discovered in garbage bags around her city, and characters display a disconcerting tendency to age rapidly or regress to immaturity. The scenes of her speaking IKEA with her boyfriend Rufus, who specializes in sustainable design but longs to start a rock band and wonders if they are "too white, too settled, too happy" are brilliant, as are the scenes of homeless people building shelters out of mayoral campaign signs and being hailed as designing savants.

Floating Like a Goat is a mother's letter to child's grade one teacher after the child "does not meet expectations" in art class. The mother's righteous anger over a teacher who insists that people must be drawn with their feet touching the ground and with the background filled in starts out as a letter that any mother could imagine writing (I was right there with her), and then devolves beautifully into a surreal, grief-stricken meditation on art, burgeoning and unspent potential, and desire.

It's a spiky, discomfiting collection. Houses are swallowed by the ground, characters are harassed to insanity by things they want and can't have, and by the people who have them. The Adopted Chinese Daughters' Rebellion is a brutal send-up of the perceived smugness of some people who adopt foreign children -- I have to admit I loved most of this one, but she lost me with the footbinding (and yes, I acknowledge that that may have been the point). Mister Kakami turns Gartner's pitiless eye on the film industry, in a Heart of Darkness-inspired view of a director who goes missing while filming on an island which is an aboriginal Canadian "sacred site". Angels inhabit the bodies of young teenagers in We Come in Peace, seeking to recover sensory experiences, with disastrous results.

Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika is my favourite story title; it is also one story where I was caught off-guard by the earnestness of the narrator, who in fact wasn't a sham, but was genuinely trying to help, albeit in a questionable manner. It also features my favourite passage, regarding the reaction to the disappearances and deaths of several prominent motivational speakers: "Deepak now travels Kevlar-coated, with two armed guards, in an electric vehicle reminiscent of the Popemobile."

I usually try to keep short story collections to be parceled out one at a time, but I ended up gulping this one down in two short gulps. It was a disturbing, elating experience.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives will be reviewed by The Literary Word on April 20th, In the Next Room on April 21st, and Bella's Bookshelves on April 26th. I've resisted looking at any other reviews until now - I'm interested in seeing what everyone else has to say.


Nicole said…
This is a very timely review because I just finished all my books that I received for Christmas this year and I have been itching for something new and different to read. I really love short story collections - I haven't read anything by Gartner or Lorrie Moore, so I think that will be next on my list. Thanks for the great review!
I don't often read short story collections, although this one sounds interesting. It's too bad you and I don't live closer together and we could swap books. That would be perfecto.
Magpie said…
disturbing and elating? that sounds memorable. it also has a terrific title.
Ms. G said…
'Summer of the Flesh eater' I haven't read these stories but I would like to hug the writer for this one already.
Pam said…
Sounds like am interesting writer. I haven't read any of her work yet and tend to shy away from short story collections. Given my short attention span of late, perhaps this is one worth investigating. The mix of characters sounds interesting. Thanks for the review!
Shan said…
Sounds like an interesting read. I'll have to check it out... once I'm done reading Sweet Valley Confidential of course ;)
Suniverse said…
This looks amazing - I'm putting a hold on it right now at the library.
Patti Murphy said…
Me want this book.

I thoroughly enjoyed your review. Thanks for this.
harriet glynn said…
I read and LOVED All The Anxious Girls on Earth so I must get my hands on that one. Curious about the take on Chinese adoptions. I hope she's not squewering the parents just the conceit that people THINK that adoptive parents are smug, which is frankly ridiculous. But I do love her style and wit and uniqueness. Cheers.

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