Thursday, April 21, 2011

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is the second collection of short stories by Zsuzsi Gartner, who previous published All the Anxious Girls on Earth over a decade ago. The dark satire present throughout the collection often reminded me of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, a novel I unfortunately did not enjoy. For example in "Once We Were Swedes", Gartner writes:
"It was the year provincial health insurance had started covering Botox injections and teeth-whitening technology for the disenfranchised."
Offering the same kind of dystopian culture critique and later even describes the woman as having "pillowy Jolie LipsTM".  It is the same story which centres around a woman who speaks to her husband in IKEA slang, complete with a glossary at the end, she says things such as "Slabang" which means funny (alarm clock)- but I just didn't find the concept slabang. That was the problem I had almost instantly with Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, I simply don't find this kind of writing funny, and because the dark humour is almost by definition, emotionally distant, I didn't find myself connecting with the characters either. That's not to say I didn't enjoy portions or find them specific parts interesting, but it never got to the point where I was excited about the writing.

My favourite story in the collection was probably the very strange, "Floating Like a Goat", which is a letter from a mother written to her daughter's first grade teacher when she learns her daughter did not meet expectations in art class, "What I would like to focus on is your insistence that a drawing is not complete until the child has filled in the background." she writes.

In "Someone Is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika", motivational speakers hide out in the woods for reasons I could never quite discern but I believe had something to do with bioenergetics though I am also not quite sure what that is or what the characters connection to it was. The characters themselves have a variety of interesting names, from Cinders to Pudding, although if those are their actual names or supposed to be nicknames I don't know. The story is full of mentions of current technology as being outdated, old Nintendo DS, nanos, and the new new Conan O'Brien show, but to me it felt mostly like meaningless name-dropping- it provided context but it didn't emotionally connect or even make me laugh.

One glitch that really bothered me happened in the final story, the title on in the collection, "Better Living Through Plastic Explosives" about a terrorist turned suburban mom. I was reading an advance copy, so hopefully this was fixed in the finished edition, but the main character's name switches back and worth from Victoria to Lucy which was very distracting. Unless somehow I was confused and they are actually two characters, in which case the story was even more over my head than I initially thought.

The collection as a whole comments on modern culture, twisting things to the extreme and then showing the reader what the distorted view looks like. At times this was interesting, but overall, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives was just not meant for me. I have already read plenty of positive reviews and there is nothing technically wrong with Gartner's writing, so I can honestly say this was a matter of preference. If you enjoy the kind of stories I have described in this review and Gartner's dark sense of satire, then you are likely to have a much better experience with Better Living Through Plastic Explosives than I did.

Release Date: April 5th, 2011
Pages: 256
Source: ARC From Publisher
Buy the Book

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes it's about timing and what you're in the mood for too. Thanks for an honest review.


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