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Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

by Zsuzsi Gartner

Zsuzsi Gartner’s 1999 debut story collection, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, effectively captured millennial jitters by presenting readers with a gallery of relatable heroines driven to extreme actions by the centrifugal force of the times. Parody and dystopian riffing cavorted freely with ­astute character observation, producing an intriguing hybrid of manic satire and grounded social observation.

In her follow-up collection, Gartner’s satirical eye sets its sights on the millennium’s first decade. Unfortunately, her ­vision is far less focused this time, and the stories’ characters too often descend to the level of caricature.

The title story, which illuminates the troubled conscience of Lucy, a former anti-corporate terrorist making an uneasy go at the straight life in Vancouver, exemplifies the collection’s failings. By juxtaposing Lucy’s guilt in the present with the reality of her part in an arson attack that left an innocent child dead, Gartner creates a mood of surreal dissonance. But when the narrative repeatedly shifts to Lucy’s ongoing attendance at a recovery group for ex-terrorists, the story loses power. The idea of ex-terrorists exchanging 12-step sentiments to keep on the path of righteousness is not particularly funny to begin with, and feels anachronistic, given the decidedly unironic connotations terrorist acts carry in post-9/11 North America.

When Lucy’s fellow conspirators are released from prison, they are variously interviewed in Rolling Stone, offered ­reality TV gigs, and photographed by ­Annie Leibovitz. Besides the obviousness of the conceit – “In America, even terrorists are celebrities!” – the jokes are simply unbelievable: Leibovitz marked her anti-terrorist stance with a now-iconic Vanity Fair photo shoot of George W. Bush and his Iraq War cabinet, and reality TV is nothing if not a bastion of reactionary, Stars-and-Stripes lovin’ politics.

Furthermore, Lucy’s sponsor in the group is a founding member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP who left the organization after he refused to ­participate in a campaign that involved booby-­trapping a cinema seat with an HIV-infected syringe. Considering ACT UP was founded on principles of non-violent resistance, the line about the infected syringe feels like a pointless exaggeration to shock the reader.

Such criticisms may sound like nit­picking, but Gartner’s up-to-the-minute social satire relies on pinning its comic targets to the mat with perfect, stinging detail. One wrong move and the satirist’s spell is broken. Many of these stories contain several wrong moves, and Gartner’s riffs and punch lines are often too broad or just plain clichéd.

In “Mister Kakami,” a rambling, too-busy tale of a Jewish producer trying to rescue a troubled B.C. movie shoot, Gartner blitzkriegs the reader with dozens of apocalyptic set pieces that send up everything from the movie biz to New Age spirituality. Some of the broadsides are funny, some not, and again, some just feel wrong.

For instance, the producer, Syd, remembers a boyhood camping experience in the ravine behind his grandparents’ Rosedale house, an experience he shared with the family dog, Brisket. Historically, Toronto’s successful Jews lived in Forest Hill, not Rosedale (the segregated enclave of the city’s WASP establishment). And would a Jewish family name a beloved family pet after a Yiddish meat dish? Do WASPs name their dogs Pot Roast or Sloppy Joe? A wealthy Jewish family living in pre-1980s Rosedale who also named their dog Brisket may be possible, but as cultural observation it feels false, and as comedy it’s a cliché that distracts from the story’s comic vision.

Gartner’s trenchant observations about gender roles, which served the stories in Anxious Girls so well, are largely absent here. In “Summer of the Flesh Eater,” a story that seems to have been written for no other reason than to prove Noam Chomsky’s observation that the white working class is the last ethnic group that can be ridiculed with impunity, Gartner enacts a pseudo-Darwinist allegory about an upper-middle-class neighbourhood invaded by a barbeque-loving, pick-up driving, BO-stinking, racist, sexist redneck.

The story is narrated by one of the boor’s conflict-averse, hypersensitive, green-tea-sipping male neighbours, all of whom are paralyzed by the new homeowner’s brutish masculinity (while their wives, by contrast, are driven into a sexual frenzy). Besides the story’s unoriginal conceit – which is ridden until its poor feet are bleeding – Gartner dredges her comic portrait of the modern middle-class male from the effete, trend-chasing yuppie of the 1980s and the militantly empathic New Age male of the 1990s.

Such men may still exist, but contemporary middle-class masculinity is largely defined by a laddish iconography of barbequed red meat, dirty Las Vegas weekends, bourbon, UFC-style machismo, and other lowbrow status symbols. For today’s well-heeled homeowner, a working-class slob would help lend authenticity, proving that the world is a far stranger place than even Gartner imagined.


Reviewer: James Grainger

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton Canada


Price: $30

Page Count: 200 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 978-0-67006-518-9

Released: April

Issue Date: 2011-3

Categories: Fiction: Short