Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living through Plastic Explosives
Penguin, 2011

I was stunned by All the Anxious Girls on Earth when it was published in 1999 (tell me: how has it happened that a dozen years have passed since then?).

Partly because I read it all-in-a-rush. Partly because the stories are stunning. (Partly the kind of stunning that leaves you jaw agape with wonder and excitement. Partly the kind of stunning that leaves you jaw agape with drooling and a headache.)

Better Living through Plastic Explosives is a vibrant, high-voltage collection: it will leave many readers stunned.

In “Floating like a Goat”, a concerned mother writes a letter to her daughter’s first grade teacher, and says “I’m going to tell you a story…and don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t immediately make sense. Good stories seldom do.”

The story in “Floating like a Goat” doesn’t make sense immediately – which adds to that stunned feeling – but it does make sense as the pages turn.

Most notably, the first story and the final story in this collection almost demand a re-read; by the time readers have assembled the jigsaw puzzle, they want to reach for the box lid to see the full image that’s finally been assembled.

Yes, structurally, these tales are complex. They often contain sentences like this one (being careful to avoid saying which story this is from, so as to avoid spoilers):

“There was something reassuring about the camaraderie, a single-mindedness of purpose she hadn’t felt since that night almost twenty years ago when her life cleaved in two.”

With a delicate balance maintained between that cleaving moment almost twenty years ago and the present-day, the resulting tension pulls the reader across the years and through the story with a sense of urgency.

I was going to include an image of plastic explosives but chickened out (surely that would flag BIP in some lasting way), so settled for a plastic bag instead (but biodegradable because lots of these stories’ characters are eco-minded)

Although, ultimately, the pace at which the reader moves through the collection depends on their response to the language.

The prose style is analytical and dynamic and, despite the narrative shifts, these qualities remain intact through all ten stories. Whether one sentence loosely stretches over a dozen lines, or whether several sentences are boldly paralleled, the observations are incisive and intelligent.

It is relentless. For some readers this will be invigorating and thrilling; for others it will be overwhelming and frustrating.

Here’s an example, which I’ve quoted in four separate lines for greater reading ease but which actually opens a longer paragraph:

“Wisteria hangs over the eaves like clumps of ghostly grapes.
Euphorbia’s pale blooms billow like sea froth.
Blood grass twists upward, knifing the air, while underground its roots go berserk, goosing everything in their path.
A magnolia, impatient with vulvic flesh, erupts in front of the living-room window.” *

Not all readers will respond to the idea of hair pulled so tightly that eyebrows become boomerangs.

(Indeed, some readers will have those eyebrows and could be offended by seeing them captured in print.)

At times it does feel as though these stories are written in another language. Like the one adopted by the couple in “Once, We Were Swedes”:

“There was a time when she had been fluent in more than one language. Alex and Rufus used to speak IKEA with each other, a language redolent with umlauts and nursery-rhyme rhythms. Drömma. Blinka. Sultan Blunda! It was lingonberry of another tongue — tart, sexy even, in a birch-veneer kind of way. Their private lingua franca.”

Not everybody wants to read stories titled for flesh eaters, motivational speakers and plastic explosives.

But for those readers who find Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri stories dull?

For those who wonder what all the fuss is about Anton Chekhov’s and William Trevor’s stories?

Those readers could well find better reading — via Better Living through Plastic Explosives.


Short story collections make the shortlists regularly, but so far the only collections that have sealed the deal are Alice Munro’s (Runaway and For the Love of a Good Woman) and Vincent Lam’s Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures. Gartner’s collection is a book of a different cover.

Inner workings

Intricately plotted and paced, readers often have to wait for the final pages of the story to understand all that has come before. These are stories that beg for second readings: first one to follow the blazed path, the second to check out the scenic views.


Mesmerizing or off-putting. Like black licorice and blue cheese, anchovies and liver: consumed or avoided with a passion. Take the five* lines above: play the Eames game and zoom outwards and inwards by Powers of Ten, then add footnotes. e-mails, a playbill, and a glossary.


Toronto. Vancouver. Some characters gather for BBQs in a suburban cul-de-sac and others gather to walk across burning embers in the countryside. Film sets and fancy parties. Walking through a field in the snow at night and standing in a front garden in the sunshine during the day.


First story’s title will send some readers scurrying: “Summer of the Flesh Eater: Field Notes on the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type”. When things start to come together and fall apart in those 23 pages, more will flee. But some will rave.

Readers wanted:

You don’t need to be the cleverest person in the room. Your feathers are not easily ruffled. You appreciate a wicked wit. You are equally capable of letting a hard candy sit in your mouth and soften around the edges, and of biting it straight through while it’s still cold.

Would you/Did you fit this description? What did you think?

Companion Reads:
Charlotte Gill’s Ladykiller (2005) (she appreciates irony too)
Holley Rubinsky’s At First I Hope for Rescue (1998) (west-coast, yes, but differently styled stories)
Will Ferguson’s Happiness (Also titled Generica, 2001) (also very sharp and funny)
Plus: Zsuzsi Gartner’s site and  Listen to the first story