First aired on North by Northwest (16/10/11)
Vancouver author Zsuszi Gartner, a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her short story collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, wants to challenge readers.
She discussed her goals as a writer with North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay in a recent interview. Writing a novel is not necessarily one of them: Gartner has written two books of short fiction, and she loves the form. It's "the urgency and the sense of intensity" that appeal to her.
At the same time, Gartner realizes that short fiction doesn't get the same recognition that novels do when it comes to marketing — and it gets short shrift on the awards circuit too. Gartner cites a Toronto Star article that surveyed the Giller shortlist since the annual award was launched in 1994, and there was not always a book of short stories on the list. In fact, Gartner pointed out, only three short story collections have ever won the Giller, and two were by CanLit icon Alice Munro.
Gartner says that her artistic manifesto is expressed by a character in one of the stories in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. In Floating Like a Goat, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Art. (The subtitle is a play on Raymond Carver's well-known book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. "It's kind of a tongue-in-cheek nod because my writing couldn't be more different than Carver's," Gartner commented. "It's sort of maximalism versus minimalism. I do think he's a marvellous writer, he just spoiled a lot of people trying to imitate him.")
In the story, a mother writes a letter to her daughter's Grade 1 teacher, because the teacher has said that the girl is "not meeting expectations" in art class. "The point of art is...in not meeting expectations," she writes.
Like the character in her story, Gartner contends that art should actually subvert expectations. "Should art make people comfortable and make them relate to it? Or should it surprise them? I believe in entertaining when I write, but I also believe in not coddling."
She goes on to say "I do think readers...don't really like to be challenged. So I try to make my challenging stuff entertaining." She adds that her intention is not to be prescriptive, but to describe what she strives for in her own work. "I'm not saying people should read a certain kind of book," she added. "But I'm just putting out there how I feel about the enterprise."
The stories in Better Living Through Explosives start out in familiar territory, but then take the reader somewhere strange. One example is the first story, Summer of the Flesh Eater, which Gartner wrote at a time she was editing a book called Darwin's Bastards. It's about a man who moves into a new neighbourhood where he doesn't fit in. Gartner was reading a lot about Darwin and it influenced the story, which turned into a tale in which evolution is reversed. She knew how she wanted it to end, but for her the challenge was "how can I make that [ending] believable and poignant when it's so crazy?"
Gartner acknowledges that it's difficult to write satire in a world where it seems outrageous things are happening (and being reported on) daily. "We live in a self-satirizing world," she said.
On several occasions, she started out writing narratives about situations that were absurd, only to to be outdone by something happening in reality. As a result, she said, "in this book, I decided to part with realism altogether." Nevertheless, though absurd and fantastical things happen in her stories, Gartner insists that they are still about aspects of the world we live in. "I'm able to do a lot of looking at how we live today [and] where are we going," she said.
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
by Zsuzsi Gartner
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From the publisher:
"In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we'd live in if we all got what we wanted."
Read more at Hamish Hamilton Canada.