Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Zsuzsi Gartner.

Gartner, Zsuzsi. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Hamish Hamilton Canada (Penguin) Toronto 2011. F:12/11.

It’s short stories. I’ve been aware of this author who writes for local papers, and lives, in Vancouver. I wondered if she was the daughter of a Gartner who worked with my dad, but googling suggests she’s from Calgary which I believe rules that out. I bought the book at Talewind in Sechelt, because it was Giller short-listed. Once again there is just a hint of that “all of a piece” conceit as the short stories rarely but definitely reference one another.

Well Zsuzsi’s writing is overwrought and in-your-face. Could be we’re invited to see past the way she writes: underneath all the (necessary, you know….this is the cool literary world) bling she’s just Suzie-Q from the block to us made-in-BC Canadians and her stylistic wingding still goes straight to the heart, maybe because we’re so multicultural here?. Um, whatever…

And whatever’s going on with all the trendy pluralism etc., having read the prose it’s hard not to picture Zsuzsi a groovy trickster with tattoos, hardware, and primary color stripes in her hair. More on the bright side, I guess you could analogize what her writing is like now as a young wine, packed with crazy smells that are hard even to identify let alone decide on the value of, that might with luck settle down over a few years into something beautiful. No clue how old she is, i.e. how far she has to go. But she’s got herself a quantum leap as a writer with the Giller notoriety.

The stories tend to have a spiritual-metaphysical content and feel, with I think the best one involving angels who inhabit a group of North Vancouver young teenagers. There is a disconcerting and I would say unnecessary tendency for people to get killed, and the violence and death doesn’t carry the whallop it packs in Alice Munro. I don’t think we’d miss it much if it wasn’t there, it’s just another sharp turn and grinding of broken glass that’s part of Zsuzsi’s (I know this isn’t fair but I can’t resist sensing affectation in someone who writes this kind of fiction hanging onto the dissonant Hungarian name) “Look at me!” way of doing business. One of the stories ends with “huh, huh, huh…?” repeated 330 times, like the fade out of some stoned vinyl disc or a nutbar atonal-style poet from the 60s. Is this “nostalgic”? Um, whatever…

Elements repeat. The emblem for sexy is young girl in T-shirt two sizes too small. There is always a Chinese character (person). And the style as I said for me never escapes that self-promoting rocky junky riprap feel. “West Coast” is it trying to be? Um…

I hope she emerges from a decade or so in the cellar a bit smoother. It smells like it could be worth the wait. 7.4 (“+”?)

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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