From Better Living Through Plastic Explosives
Few writers in Canada are as adept at piercing the pretensions of postmodern society as Vancouver’s Zsuzsi Gartner. Her short stories, which tend to traffic in the mode of outrageous satire, are defiantly of the moment and don’t shy away from taking specific aim at pervasive cultural and societal ills. Her approach is refreshingly devoid of ideology: Gartner is as happy to mock the sanctimony and hypocrisy of the left as the greed and bigotry of the right.
“Investment Results May Vary,” from Gartner’s Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted 2011 collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, finds the author in top form, telling the twin stories of Nina, an environmentalist who has been forced to take a job as a mascot for the forthcoming Vancouver Olympics to make ends meet, and the absurdly named Honey Fortunata, a real-estate agent looking to make a huge commission on the sale of a $7.4 million home in Vancouver. In the background of these parallel stories there looms a strange, ongoing natural disaster: a mountain is swallowing up expensive estates on the North Shore, devouring the property but leaving “sentient being[s]” – families, pets – unharmed.
Even a quick sketch of the story’s plot illustrates the conflicts that Gartner is interested in here: the income disparity between the very rich and the dirt poor (which has only been exacerbated in the years since she published her collection by skyrocketing rents and real-estate prices in and around Vancouver); the environmental depredations human manufacturing and development wreak on the natural landscape; the threat of a wounded planet attempting to restore equilibrium through increasingly violent means.
“The mountain is angry,” say some of the more spiritual observers as tony North Shore estates continue to vanish into the ground and “downtown hotels fill up with the moneyed homeless” (a particularly barbed juxtaposition on Gartner’s part). “Unlike those who act as if they’re on speed-dial to the Earth goddess – those men on recumbent bikes and those women who rub baking soda into their fuzzy armpits and think fetal-monitoring machines are the work of the devil – rationalists who’ve always harboured a secret penchant for Greek mythology know full well that Gaia is in fact the daughter of Chaos.”
Neither Nina nor Honey is a stranger to chaos. Nina, who lives in a cramped basement apartment with a repurposed milk crate standing in for a dining table, is passionately devoted to environmental causes, but spends her days sweating inside a plush marmot costume while trying to entice children and tourists to get excited about the Olympics. (And sweat she does: Nina is archly described as “the Lance Armstrong of perspiration.”)
Honey, meanwhile, has a junkie half-sister who has fallen into sex work to feed her habit in the years since their mother died. The sister, tellingly named Charity, is in debt to “some very scary people” and Honey is counting on her commission from the upcoming sale to pay back what Charity owes and get her off the street.
Clearly, Gartner does not lack for ambition: these are large and difficult themes and she incorporates them into her narrative with aplomb and apparent ease. This is thanks, in large part, to a first-rate facility with detail. Gartner’s prose is highly specific and focused on the kind of precise observation that allows character to arise organically, obviating the obligation to explain things in an artificial or intrusive way.
Thus, when Nina sits in her basement watching an aspirational real-estate ad featuring an anodyne couple surrounded by interior design nirvana, Gartner conveys the televised surroundings briskly and efficiently: “Of course, there’s a berber rug. Not a Paul-Bowles-got-wasted-on-this-rug berber, but creamy, white wool, Yaletown berber.” By invoking one of Vancouver’s most upscale, professional neighbourhoods (and counterpointing that with an allusion to an itinerant, bohemian 20th-century writer), Gartner immediately situates the visual in the context of high-end conspicuous consumption without having to pause to make the argument more explicitly.
Likewise, we learn everything we need to know about Honey’s sensibility when she becomes emotional at the poetry of Eurythmics’ pop anthem “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” a song she first encountered on the Martha Stewart version of The Apprentice.
The specific choice of a favourite song for Honey is, once again, not accidental, but tilts in the exact direction of the story’s overarching theme. “Investment Results May Vary” (and consider carefully the dual meaning in the word “investment”) addresses the problem of longing for things that remain stubbornly out of our grasp. “Never make the mistake of showing how much you really want something” is Honey’s driving principle; it’s a mistake she succumbs to when she confronts Charity’s pimp and promises to pay him whatever he asks in order to rescue her little sister. It’s a mistake that Nina makes when, decked out in full marmot regalia, she kidnaps the child of a couple who superficially resemble the man and woman in the televised real-estate ad. The child – a Sikh who is able to comprehensively recount the B.C. Supreme Court decision regarding religious regalia that allows him to wear a kirpan as part of his school attire – briefly shows Nina a glimpse of the life she might have had were it not for a combination of luck and circumstance.
For her part, Honey knows all the tricks of the trade – she convinces her clients to take another look at the property they’re hesitating on because “the sellers are very motivated (real estate code for getting a divorce).” But all the expertise in the world won’t help her achieve her goals when circumstances beyond her control rise up to confront her. (How do you make God laugh? Make a plan.) When the mountain swallows up the home she was intending to sell, for the first time in the story Honey loses her stiff-upper-lip British rectitude. Caught on camera by a local news crew, the real estate agent is seen “scrabbling at the earth with her bare hands, flinging hunks of sod through the air and keening.”
“It’s about the things you want. Don’t let anyone tell you different,” Nina thinks. “It’s about the things you can’t have.” This is an apt summary of Gartner’s precisely calibrated, vicious little parable. “Investment Results May Vary” is about the things we want but can’t have. To our immense betterment, the excoriating fiction of Zsuzsi Gartner is not among them.