Review: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner

>>Published: March 2011

>>Finally got around to it: October 2011

It’s difficult to say just how badly Nina is sweating inside her Olympic mascot costume, as even under ideal circumstances she is the Lance Armstrong of perspiration. If there were an Olympic medal for sweating, there she’d be, on the tier of the podium closest to heaven, her Athens-vintage Roots singlet plastered to her body, brandishing gold. She blames her Eastern European heritage, something hirsute and unfavourable embedded in her twist of DNA, combined with a childhood of pork fat, too many root vegetables, and polyester stretch pants. Yet there is something distinctly working class about excess sweat, which is why she’s never followed up on her mother’s suggestion (may she squirm in eternal unrest) that she have some of her eccrine glands removed. I secrete therefore I am, Nina liked to scoff. And really, is there anything more bourgeois than elective surgery?


Zsuzsi Gartner’s second collection of short fiction, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, is an intelligently worded piecemeal manifesto attacking faux artists and film industry wannabes; a diatribe against the dysfunction of IKEA-first family living and the pomposity of motivational speakers that prey on the weak-willed and ignorant; a cynical, ice cold fist to the heart of teachers that shouldn’t be, and angelic youths that never quite make it off the ground. It is also laced with a bitterness that betrays any sense of character or humour that might have been found within.

The ten stories in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives run the gamut from personal tales of hurt and disgruntlement, as exemplified in the mother’s rant of “Floating Like a Goat,” to esoteric examinations of humanity and the randomness of youth as seen through the eyes of emotionally detached angels in “We Come in Peace.” What’s clear from the first page is that Gartner is a deeply intelligent writer.

That, and she’s got quite an axe to grind.

Similar to the work of Douglas Coupland, Zsuzsi Gartner’s prose is disaffected, removed from all personal intervention. She writes not with heart, but with a scientist’s curious disdain for a problem with no clear solution. Instead of characters and motivations or arcs, the stories contained in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives are platforms, the individuals within mere mouthpieces for the author to point her finger at the Olympics, or the Vancouver film industry, and say “Ah, ah, ah, you’re wrong and I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong.” Which would be fine, if in fact she followed through on this threat. Again, similar to Coupland, a lot is vented at, complained about, and singled out for criticism, but no answers are given. These narratives lack individual tone or a sense of momentum, instead piling on top of one another like so many dead trees worth of anti-this-or-that propaganda.

The trick to this collection, however, is in Gartner’s ability to divert the reader’s attention from the book’s missteps through parenthetical asides, footnotes to footnotes, and a curiously large amount of unfortunate repetition—using similarly obscure terms and descriptors, or pulling from the same well of pop culture examples across the stories with no reason to think that they’re deliberately tied to one another. Gartner’s card tower of “look how fucked up we are” mini essays—because it’s difficult to call stories without character anything but—is a mess of misdirection and misanthropy, filtered through an intellectual’s thesaurus of adjectives and archetypes.

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