As usual I received this book from a GoodReads giveaway.
I really wanted to like this book but I just could never quite catch my stride with it. The stories contained here are brief and disjointed in a way that fails to capture one's attention. Viewed in isolation the author is obviously good at their craft but somehow taken as a whole it's hard not to just skim over the words and realize only later that you've been reading for 20 minutes but not consumed anything the author had to say. In fact, the text blows by like a summer breeze and it makes it difficult to even formulate a coherent review. Nothing is more ample evidence of that fact than this rather incoherent bit of feedback.
Perhaps the whole thing would be better consumed in small bits over several days rather than taken all at once. The text is exceptionally tangled and complex so that generally means that one story a day is more in order. Sadly, the bits of this I did manage to catch are not interesting enough to motivate me to pursue that line of evaluation.
I can't seem to find appropriate adjectives to describe "Better Living Through Plastic Explosives"; weird, unnerving, volatile and wild all come to mind but none perfectly captures this funny "ha ha" and funny "strange" collection. Gartner's West Coast provides the background for otherworldly visitations, squatter camps and body part-containing trash bags, displaying a nervy mix of scientific ideas, quackery and pop culture.
Granted, some stories deal with the more mundane: relationship woes, a child's unsatisfactory art grade, real estate transactions. But regardless of plot, all Gartner's tales contain acute observation, vivid description and sharply drawn characters. Her twisty, dense sentences move from sardonic to plangent, wry to heartfelt in a mere clause or two while avoiding the category of "too cerebral."
Ultimately, the collection blends the extraordinary with the very ordinary, the hybrid stories animated by a fact-happy, snarky and inventive author.
Zsuzsi Gartner is a darn fine writer and reading "Better Living Through Plastic Explosives" both encouraged, yet depressed, me as a struggling, see fledgling, writer myself.
As an encouragement, this book gave me a clear understanding of what good short stories should look like. These are stories with tight, concrete sentences and language that highlights Gartner's cynical, yet sarcastic, tone.
However, the most appealing thing about "Better Living" is the characters. These are characters anxious with longing, characters bold enough to get drunk with existentialism and ask, "If we truly have developed from apes, then why do we still pick and prod at this thing called a soul?" and "Why are we doomed to want what we can't have?" and "Just what exactly are we doing here?"
Most of us aren't brave enough to sit down with these questions and talk to them until we're red in the face. But Gartner won't let her characters do that. No, Gartner sits her characters down and shows them, and us, that maybe life isn't about finding answers. Maybe life is about being courageous enough to ask questions, and not let go. Maybe life is a question without an answer, and maybe we feel sad for these characters because their inability to answer their questions reflects our inability to answer our questions, as well.
But at least they're bold enough to ask them, which is something us non-fictioneers are often too afraid, and unwilling, to do.
And for the depression. Well, the depression hits when I realize that I can't write like Zsuzsi Gartner, which, I guess, is okay--for now.
For now, I can just convince myself that I'm not carbon-copying her characters. And hope too, that somehow, she doesn't find out.
I was reading this book in a noodle restaurant on Broadway when a British couple asked me about the puzzling (disturbing?) title. It was a challenge to provide a tidy summary of such a quirky collection of short stories, but I did explain that the author was local, the stories contained many charming local references, and that the stories were very funny in a very dark way. I hope they were intrigued enough to buy this book as an authentic and very entertaining souvenir of Vancouver. Zsuzsi totally nails both the charms and affectations of modern civilization in this urban rainforest.