Author paints dark, satiric portrait of Vancouver in stories

Reuters, Monday 21 Jan 2013

'Better Living Through Plastic Explosives' by Canadian author Zsuzsi Gartner speaks of the near future in Vancouver

A Vancouver neighbourhood of men who drink fig-infused martinis and eat fiddleheads on skewers faces a crisis when a beer-swilling, barbecue-loving truck driver moves in. An Olympic mascot marmot kidnaps a young boy from his parents.

These are just a few of the tales in "Better Living Through Plastic Explosives," a book of short stories by Canadian author Zsuzsi Gartner that brings to life a dark, satiric Vancouver set just a few years into the future.

"I would say it is a portrait of Vancouver, my Vancouver," said Gartner, who was short-listed for Canada's Giller Prize for the collection, published recently in the United States. "I've created my own kind of mythology, set in the near future, of how I view the city itself.

"I map different psychic and demographic spaces, but telling the stories I like to tell, which are dark satire."

In one, "The Adopted Chinese Daughters' Rebellion," Canadian parents push adopted offspring into Buddhism and feng shui, while the girls just want to be Canadian. "Once, We Were Swedes" features IKEA product names as a loving, erotic language.

Typical in many ways is "The Summer of the Flesh Eater," the tale of a cultural collision between the vegan locavores of one particular Vancouver cul-de-sac and the truck-driving carnivore who arrives in their midst, serving up huge slabs of meat he describes as "bodacious."

Like many of her tales, Gartner said, it began with a concept - the idea of the difficulty of being a man in the 21st century, combined with the idea of evolution and Darwin's theories, part of another project.
"Then the idea of devolution instead of evolution, what if we started devolving instead of evolving?" she said.

"Those things I was interested in came together and I found a narrative for them. Here's a cosy little setup, a classic story scenario - you know, 'At the Door Knocks a Stranger.' Equilibrium is disturbed. The out of towner, the lost brother, the guy who doesn't fit in."

The story also shares with several others in the book its location on a cul-de-sac, which Gartner said is her equivalent of Agatha Christie's isolated house or train on which all of the action takes place.

"The demographics of Vancouver are important if you're trying to understand the book... It's the fabric of what goes on here," she said. "When you isolate a microcosm of a population on a cul-de-sac and put a microscope on them, you have a bit of a petri dish."

As a satirist, though, she said she has run into difficulties, noting that some of the unreal or otherworldly things she has written have come true, such as reality TV.

"The world has become so self-satirising. You open the paper or go online, and it's really hard to satirise a world - not just a society but a world - that's become so self-satirising," she said.

"So I push things slightly into the future. I thought that if I project it three to five years ahead, and make up stuff that's a little otherworldly, then I can keep one step ahead of things."

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