In ten clever and engaging short stories, Canadian author Zsuzsi Gartner explores trials of modern life imbued with the fantastical. Shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives consists largely of characters that come from places of relative privilege. Gartner often skewers the ridiculousness of that privilege, but always manages to take her characters and their dissatisfactions seriously.
In “Investment Results May Vary”, one woman logging mandatory community service by wandering around Vancouver in an Olympic mascot costume grapples with feelings of inadequacy spurred by a perfect-looking couple she keeps seeing in ads. When she spots a real-life family that resembles them, she takes matters into her own furry hands. At the same time, fancy houses around the city are vanishing into thin air, making matters dicey for Honey Fortunata, a pulled-up-by-her-bootstraps real estate agent. In “Mister Kakami”, when a talented filmmaker goes AWOL from his set on a remote rainforest island and is pursued by his producer, both start having vivid visions—real or mystical, it’s not always clear.
Filled with expertly contrived and hilarious turns of phrase (of one character, she writes, “soon she’s holding back Lollapalooza-sized tears that threaten to start smashing guitars all over the stage of her face”), Better Living is as sensitive as it is entertaining in its tales of individuals on tangled existential quests for truth and meaning.
By Kim Hedges