Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Zsuzsi Gartner's Better Living Through Plastic Explosives

Either I am lax in my attention to the literary genre I have devoted my life to studying, or else the literary lines of communication between the U.S. and other countries--at least concerning the short story—are woefully inadequate.

I have just finished reading Peter Stamm’s new collection of short stories, We’re Flying, and wrote a review of it for Magill’s Literary Annual.  Stamm is a Swiss writer who--sad to say--I had not heard of until I read a short story by him in The New Yorker this past year entitled “Sweet Dreams,” which is included, along with over twenty other stories, in his new book. I cannot duplicate in my blog comments I make in the review for proprietary reasons, but I recommend it to you highly.

A few weeks ago, a marketing assistant at Canada’s Pintail Books asked if I would like to read Canadian writer Zsuzsi Gartner’s new collection of stories entitled Better Living Through Plastic Explosives.  Because the title of the book was in the Subject line, and because--shame on me--I had not heard of it, I almost deleted the email, thinking it was an advert for, yes, you guessed it, plastic explosives.  You never know what someone may be pushing on the Internet these days.

I did a bit of research on Ms. Gartner, and found out--again shame on me—that the collection (her second by the way) was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011. I told Pintail (which is a Canada Penguin imprint) that I would be happy to read the book. I have just finished reading Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and recommend Ms Gartner to you very highly—especially if you like the kind of satiric short fiction that Donald Barthelme developed in the 60’s and that George Saunders, Rick Moody, and David Foster Wallace have shown to be a lasting part of the short story tradition.

After doing some more research on Ms. Gartner, my admiration for her has grown.  She has said that at its best, the short story is “the greatest genre on earth.”  Echoing Steven Millhauser’s comments a couple of years ago that the short story could contain the universe in a grain of sand, Gartner has said, “A great short story might be small, but it can contain the universe.”  She says that she never forgets that a story is “about its language”—that a sentence can contain a world and that a story should maintain an air of mystery. These are characteristics of the short story I have always espoused and applaud Ms. Gartner for her keen appreciation of the form.

In another interview, Gartner vehemently argues that there is a “stupid” literary bias against the short story, and that she doesn’t understand, “as a reader, let alone as a writer, the reason for it.”  She does, however, suggest that part of the problem of the short story’s failure to sell is that many writers begin writing short stories and then “catapult into novels and then ‘never look back.’”  She says her favorite mantra is “The short story is not a warm-up to the novel.” Amen to that, said the owl-eyed man in a brave voice.

She has also echoed George Saunders’ comments a few years ago about the increasing difficulty of writing satire when so much of the world seems a satire in and of itself.  She notes, like Saunders, that “any day of the week you can randomly open the newspaper or troll about on-line and discover better stuff than you could’ve made up.”

One of my favorite stories in this collection is “Summer of the Flesh Eater,” in which a group of snooty-nosed veggie yuppies living in a north Vancouver cul-de-sac have their “highly civilized” lives challenged by a red-necked steak-on-the-barbecue kind of guy wearing a Brando style wife-beater t-shirt and an old pickup on blocks in the front yard moves in next door. In very precise language (not a sentence wasted), Gartner explores the Darwinian gap between the so-called civilized (have we really evolved very far after all?) and the so-called primitive.  The voice of the narrator, one of the yuppie husbands (do we still call such folks yuppies?) is a comic delight.

Another favorite is “The Adopted Chinese Daughters’ Rebellion,” in which adopted girls who just want to fit into Canadian society go to war with their white tiger moms who want them to maintain their cultural identity, complete with foot binding. It is a “laugh-with a groan” satire of the multicultural and the melting pot vs. the patchwork quilt.

Also funny is “Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of America.” The title comes from the silly 1976 novel entitled Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe by Nan and Ivan Lyons, in which chefs are killed in the manner of their most famous dish (drowning the lobster chef, for example) and giving the recipe for each killer dish. In Gartner’s take, an assassin determined to wipe out motivational speakers chases one into the wilds where he must try to survive.

Brief and right on the mark is “Floating Like a Goat,” subtitled “Or What We Talk About when we Talk About Art” (the subtitle a take on the same Carver story that Nathan Englander raided last year) about a hyped up mother who writes a rant to her daughter’s art instructor, challenging her that her bad evaluation of her daughter’s work is actually an attack on the nature of art itself.

Gartner says she has no plans to write a novel: “I pack a lot of stuff into my stories, which might be hard to sustain for 300 pages.  I write really densely and I enjoy it.  A novel might be hard for the reader as well—it might be exhausting.”

Yes, indeed, she may be right.  Her careful control of sentences demands close reading. It is the style required of the short story form, but too demanding for the novel.  One reviewer called Gartner the “anti-Munro.”  That’s kind of like calling the Barthelme type story of the sixties “anti-story.” I have to admit that if it comes to choosing between the wonderfully subtle stories of Alice Munro (I just finished reading and writing a review of Dear Life), and the sharply satirical and well-written stories of Zsuzsi Gartner, I must choose Ms. Munro.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try to sneak at least one collection by Gartner or Saunders in my backpack. I love writers who love sentences and who love the short story.

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