Better Living Through Short Fiction

Since it's The Year of the Short Story I'm going to try and give more attention to the collections I read. I haven't been all that receptive to short stories in the past, mostly because I liked the commitment of novels. Lately, though, I've begun to appreciate the incredible craft that goes into short stories. Getting everything—narrative, character development, setting, action, resolution—into 20 pages seems an intensely different exercise from doing it in 300 (and neither of those things I have any skill at, so both get massive respect from me). So thanks, YoSS; I'm on board.

Zsuszi Gartner's collection, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, relates a world just slightly different from the one we inhabit now. It's not simply slightly futuristic; there's also a bit more magic and a bit more menace in Gartner's Vancouver. That the setting is so recognizable, yet constantly just a little off, gives an unheimlich tension to the stories in the collection. It feels as if there's always something ready to explode, or horrify, just around the corner. In "The Adopted Chinese Daughter's Rebellion" we visit a wealthy cul-de-sac (one of several in the collection) where adopted Chinese daughters are the status quo status-symbol. The families are hyper-culturally aware, denying the daughters any Western influence. The reader can recognize a less hyperbolic version of this (wealthy, white families adopting from poorer countries), yet Garter pushes the current trend further, to its ultimate surprising and horrifying detail.
Much was made of the cunning little embroidered boots the girls would wear, even to bed. Some of it was a bit too technical for us, with computer-generated diagrams detailing the length of cotton (4.57 metres) that would tightly bind the feet, the degree the four smaller toes were to be bent towards the sole (180), thereby breaking them, and how similar the bound foot is to a lotus blossom (very).

The excessive upper-middle class is often at literal war with the working classes throughout the stories of Better Living. A basement-apartment dweller, doing her community service in a mascot outfit, kidnaps a young boy. She's pushed into action by his outward signs of wealth (he's wearing a private school uniform), and how his parents trigger her resentment of the "Dan and Patricia"s of the world—the model perfect family seen in advertisements. In other stories the houses of the rich fall from their cliffside perches into dust. Husbands who provide "lamb popsicles in fenugreek sauce" and "ampoules filled with wild-morel cream" are emasculated by a beer-from-the-can car-on-blocks hoser type, who leaves all the wives pregnant in his wake. Alex, a woman who is hitting menopause too early and too quickly (while her husband becomes ever more childlike),
overheard a couple in JJ Bean loudly debating the pros and cons of a $25,000 residential wind turbine or a bicycle powered generator. The woman seemed particularly concerned about not losing access to Netflix. "If you want to get off the grid," she found herself saying, as if offering advice on the daily blend, "try sub-Saharan Africa." The woman called her an earth-raping, racist, Trotskyite bitch.
The upper and upper-middle classes are, in Gartner's hands, almost always caricatures, undone by their own greed, hypocrisy, and privilege-induced silliness.

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is one of those lucky collections that works extremely well as a whole. Stories in collection don't have to be related, but (for me) it's nice when there's a thematic thread. All the stories in Better Living work well together; they all exist in the same (or similar) invented world, and maintain a solid and identifiable point-of-view throughout. And it's nice, as a downtown Toronto elite, to hear a West Coast voice, now and then.

Reviewed from advanced reading copy. Release date April 5, 2011


Anonymous said...

Maybe you may want to put a twitter button to your blog. I just bookmarked this blog, but I had to do it by hand. Simply my advice.

Panic said...

Thanks for reading and bookmarking! I do have a RSS feed button but I'll think about the Twitter thing... my feed is locked down so not sure if there's much point. :)