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A North Shore like you’ve never read before
When author and satirist Zsuzsi Gartner found out her recent short-story collection Better Living Through Plastic Explosives was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, the Vancouver writer “screamed and did the happy dance.”
She’d been watching the proceedings live on her laptop computer with her son and husband by her side.
“Unreal” is how she remembers the feeling today. And it’s fitting because it’s a word critics often lean on in praising her subtle, haunting work.
“I don’t like the word surreal,” Gartner tells The Outlook in an East Vancouver cafe, opting instead for the more current “hallucinatory realism,” a term bestowed last week upon Chinese author and Nobel winner Mo Yan by the prize’s committee for literature.
Earning comparison’s to the North Shore’s own Douglas Coupland, much of the praise heaped upon Gartner’s Better Living — including a glowing book-jacket blurb from the Generation X author himself — comes from her unique rendering of place less as a setting than as a protagonist and prime mover — though often a menacing one. And nowhere does this fabulist quality come through in darker, more hallucinatory tones than in her stories about the North Shore.
“It does exist in such stark contrast here,” Gartner says, referring to the perceived urban-wild divide. It’s a divide that comfortably permeates North Shore life but vanishes just as easily when, say, a bear wanders into a home, a hiker vanishes in the trees or a mountain swallows a house.
“It gives us much; leave it alone and it’s shelter, it’s beauty, it’s food, it’s oxygen; but nature is able to crush you as well,” Gartner says, comparing the North Shore experience of nature to that of a benevolent but tetchy “Old Testament God.”
But while the natural world’s — especially the North Shore’s — capacity for divine wrath is a recurring motif in her writing, so to are the ideas of Charles Darwin, de-evolution and the idea of Darwin, the man.
“I think Darwin would have liked B.C. a lot and the North Shore environment,” Gartner says. “He’d go crazy here.”
The Vancouver author’s fascination with the father of evolutionary theory has bubbled up before, most notably in 2010’s Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow, a short-story compendium of various authors Gartner selected and edited, including Coupland.
“With my first book [All the Anxious Girls on Earth, 1999], someone wrote a thing saying I was Douglas Coupland in a miniskirt,” Gartner shrugs, “but he’s great. We share a sensibility about writing about the contemporary world,” she adds. “And I love that dystopian thing. To me nature can be very, very haunting.”
That said, Gartner confesses that she’s starting to “get” the whole North Shore lifestyle thing.
The self-professed urbanite who has proudly called East Vancouver home for more than 20 years, admits to trying and finishing the Grouse Grind for the first time ever last month.
“I thought it was the most hideous thing I’ve ever done,” Gartner laughs. “I thought I was going to die. I thought they were going to have to come get me.”
Zsuzsi Gartner will read from Better Living Through Plastic Explosives and take audience questions at the North Vancouver City Library at 7 p.m. Oct. 24 following light refreshments at 6:30 p.m.