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Zsuzsi Gartner

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Zsuzsi Gartner on gleefully flouting the rules in her boundary-breaking fiction

There’s a story in Zsuzsi Gartner’s 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize–shortlisted collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives that pretty much sums up the author’s approach to artistic creation. “Floating Like a Goat (Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Art)” takes the form of an angry letter from a mother to her daughter’s Grade 1 art teacher. The mother is upset because the teacher has upbraided her student for not adhering to the classroom rules when drawing: humans and animals must appear with their feet touching the ground, crayon strokes must all run in the same direction, and a picture is not finished until the background is filled in.

The mother derides the teacher for being a “curatorial demagogue” with “an obsessive need to wield complete control over [her] small fiefdom.” The teacher’s greatest failing is she lacks the imagination to conceive of any legitimate art other than something strictly mimetic. But art, the story argues, must take risks. If art has its feet on the ground, it’s just not working.

For the past two decades, Gartner has spent her creative energies gleefully flouting the accepted rules about what constitutes well-made fiction. In two story collections (Plastic Explosives and its 1999 predecessor, All the Anxious Girls on Earth), the author has created work that defies categorization, ranging from dystopian satire to a kind of literary expressionism, and shifting in tone from angry and aversive to funny and oddly touching.

“You don’t write the things you love. You write the things you can,” Gartner says by way of explaining the wellsprings of her exuberant and unconventional imagination.

If nothing else, this idiosyncrasy makes her a good match for her publisher, Penguin Canada’s Nicole Winstanley. “I’m really drawn to books, much to the chagrin of some of the people I work with, where you can’t find the perfect comp title because they’re so utterly original,” says Winstanley, who edited Plastic Explosives as well as Gartner’s new work, the prototypically Gartneresque novel The Beguiling.

The novel’s protagonist is Lucy, a Vancouver resident with biographical details – journalism school in Ottawa, stints working in television news and freelancing for magazines – that mirror those of her creator. Lucy’s life is thrown into turmoil when her cousin, Zoltán, hospitalized with his hands amputated, decides to tell her the story of what happened to him. Following his impromptu confession, Zoltán dies, but Lucy becomes a repository for others to fill up with tales of their darkest sins and most closely guarded secrets.

Typical of Gartner’s willingness to push the boundaries of literary technique and style, The Beguiling is not a linked-story collection, but neither is it a conventional novel with a traditional beginning, middle, and end. It inhabits an in-between netherworld that Gartner seems to prefer regardless of genre. “This is the perfect creative solution for a short-story writer of her extreme power making the transition to a novel,” says Winstanley. “Each of these confessions could be a profound story in its own right.”

Or, as Gartner’s long-time agent, Jackie Kaiser of Westwood Creative Artists, puts it, “This is like this elaborate framework – this Russian nesting doll kind of storytelling – as opposed to the novel-in-stories. It makes my head spin sometimes to think about how it’s all woven together.”

By all accounts, writing The Beguiling – which took the better part of a decade and included at least two major revisions – made Gartner’s head spin as well. “I think we rewrote the ending about 25 times,” Gartner says. “And when I say the ending, I don’t mean the last paragraph. I mean the whole fucking end. Over and over until I figured out what it was about.”

One of the things Winstanley pushed Gartner to provide was more content explicitly devoted to Lucy that would link the various vignettes in the book and strengthen their interconnection and accumulated meaning, something the author initially balked at. “I don’t like writing connective tissue and making links obvious,” says Gartner. “I don’t like a telephone ringing and the person walking across the room, picking up the phone. It’s not my mode of writing.”

The structure of the novel provides Gartner with ample opportunity to indulge the more outré regions of her imagination: Lucy’s confessors include an actress “riddled with cancer” who harbours a dark personal secret, an armless woman married to a realist painter of nature scenes resembling those of Robert Bateman, and a man whose adolescent infatuation with a nun leads to arson. The result resembles a conventional novel the way an iPhone resembles an old rotary-dial model.

Beside its affinity with Gartner’s more technically audacious work, the other vital source for The Beguiling is its author’s complicated relationship with Roman Catholicism. Growing up in Calgary, Gartner, now 60, attended Sacred Heart elementary and Bishop Carroll High School, where she read Carlos Castaneda in religious studies class and wrote poetry for her final assignment instead of an essay. “This was the Kumbaya years,” she says now, looking back at her formative experience. “These were the years we went to church and someone played guitar.”

(Credit: Osborne Macharia)

Despite a relatively benign experience in what she calls “one of the most progressive high schools in Canada,” Gartner had a falling out with her faith as she grew from a girl in a Canadian family of Hungarian-German heritage to the woman who would write some of the most provocative and boundary-pushing fiction to appear in this country in the past 30 years. “I call myself three times lapsed,” she says.

What Gartner calls her “first big split with the church” came when she was 12 or 13 and a member of the Catholic youth group at her local parish. Gartner, a self-described “performative person and drama girl” desperately wanted to do the readings during mass, but she was told that she was ineligible for this duty because girls were not allowed to read at services. “I was point-blank told by the parish priest that I couldn’t do it because I was a girl,” she says. “So then I went, Eff-off, Catholicism, I’m a feminist now.”

Subsequent run-ins with the institutional religion of Gartner’s childhood occurred later, after the post–Vatican II reforms of the 1960s gave way to a retrenchment she calls “quite fundamentalist.” But the final straw came during the period her son was preparing for the sacrament of confirmation. “The teacher had said, ‘If your parents don’t take you to church, they’re sinners,’” Gartner says. “So my son came home and said, ‘My teacher said you’re sinners.’” Gartner and her husband attended a parent-teacher night where Gartner confronted the teacher. “I said, ‘So you’re sitting here across from me to my face and you’re calling me a sinner,’” she recalls. “And then she basically said, ‘Yeah.’”

That, for Gartner, was a bridge too far. Though as any lapsed Catholic will admit, no matter how much you try to distance yourself from the church and all its trappings, you never really leave. Which may explain Gartner’s ongoing fascination with sinners and what motivates them, as well as her novelistic interest in the ritual of confession. “I’ve never gone to confession as an adult,” says Gartner, who expresses puzzlement about the contemporary practice of public group confession. “You know, ‘Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world’ and then you tap your chest,” she says. “I always felt like, I hope this helps, but it seems a bit of a cheat.”

Perhaps fitting for a born Catholic – even of the thrice-lapsed variety – Gartner chose as her architecture for The Beguiling a model appropriate to her subject: The Confessions by Saint Augustine. Like Augustine’s book, Gartner’s novel is divided into 13 sections, though she dispensed with the Catholic theologian’s more rigorous breakdown of a series of biographical chapters followed by three essayistic chapters. “I was originally going to have 10 confessions and then three chapters that were more essays reflecting on different aspects [of the story],” Gartner says. “I think that essayistic element instead wound its way into the book [as a whole].”

What is interesting is how comfortable Gartner’s fertile imagination and the novel’s Catholic rituals and iconography seem to be with one another. Gothic tropes – a twin murdered in utero, a woman who may have cannibalized her husband, a sermon about hubris and human vanity delivered by a group of plants in an arboretum – abound in a work that is also highly moral and piercingly intelligent.

The result is a book that disrupts convention and further entrenches Gartner outside the tradition of staid, comfortable Canadian fiction. “Zsuzsi’s work is an interruption to the sleepwalking that so many of us do through life,” says Winstanley. “I don’t say that as a judgment. We all carry a lot around with us and we’re trying to accomplish a lot. But sometimes we muddle through our everyday routines and she is an extreme interruption to that.”

Photography by Osborne Macharia (with hair and make-up assistance by Kaya Williams-Gaudet)