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Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner

B etter Living Through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner's second short-story collection, is funny ha ha and funny disturbing. These stories are not about the beautiful, utopian Vancouver that racks up high scores in all those livable city surveys. No, Gartner's West Coast is wild and weird, uncanny and unnerving, volatile and violent. All that gleaming, mountainous postcard scenery and lush vegetation is a backdrop for celestial and terrestrial abductions, for squatter camps cobbled out of discarded election signs and body parts stashed in trash bags.

Are you Left Coasters okay? Did all that steroidal Olympic overdevelopment crack some protective subterranean barrier, unleashing forces monstrous and strange? There are freaky mutations and otherworldly visitations afoot in Gartner's well-appointed, verdant cul-de-sacs. People and houses vanish and warp in mysterious ways. Angels roost in the bodies of teens. A neighbourhood devolves, rewinding the tape of Darwinian evolution.

It is clear that Gartner has spent a goodly while thinking about the increasingly blurry line between science fiction and science fact. She recently edited a collection of speculative fiction, Darwin's Bastards: Astounding Tales From Tomorrow. In her intro to that collection, she writes: "Is there any doubt the future is now? Will our descendants be human, or human-ish?"

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These stories keep on asking those questions. Gartner's tales are a nervy mix of scientific ideas, pseudo-scientific New Age quackery and pop culture. In her Vancouver, homeless junkies get publicly funded plastic surgery to boost their self-esteem: "They jittered around expressionless, eyes wide, their remaining teeth gleaming like Chiclets between pillowy Jolie Lips™."

When a positive-thinking guru decamps with her flock, to avoid the titular menace in Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika, she heads for the woods near a university's cyclotron. While she pontificates about energy fields and string-theory controversies, she also muses, "I greatly admire the great Amerikan singer-songwriter Neil Young but have often wondered whether it would hurt him to try doing something with his hair."

Other stories deal with more routine difficulties - relationship woes, a child's unsatisfactory art grade - but even the tales with fantastical plots are grounded in hyper-acute observation and description, in vivid images and sharply drawn characters. Hell, Gartner even made me feel pangs of human sympathy for a Hummer driver, real-estate agent Honey Fortunata, who is adversely affected by the curious events that transpire in Investment Results May Vary.

Do please pardon the euphemism, but I am loath to leak plot spoilers. One of the most common - and I think, unfair and fogeyish - complaints about postmodern fiction is that it is too tricksy, too cerebral, and lacks old-fangled reader-pleasing qualities such as "heart" and "things happening." Suffice to say that there is no such deficit here.

Gartner has championed the likes of David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen in these very book pages, and she shares their fondness for super-informed prose, for listy paragraphs and twisty sentences. Gartner's sentences are like the de rigueur granite countertops in ludicrously overpriced condos: expansive, polished and dense with flecks and speckles of dark and light. She can go from sardonic to plangent, wry to heartfelt, in a couple of clauses.

Like the late, great Wallace, Gartner relishes, and revels in, the slang, jargon and bafflegab of modern life. Here, she deploys dialects such as Foodie, Pokemonese, Self-helpish and IKEAspeak. In Once We Were Swedes, husband and wife Rufus and Alex "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."

Alas, Rufus and Alex are also adversely affected by curious events. Some of what befalls them is the stuff of science fiction, some is ripped from the headlines and the rest is what happens to most fragile mammalian pair-bonds. This blend of the extraordinary and the very ordinary animates most of the stories in this collection.

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Or, to put this another way, these stories are mutants, hybrids that thrum with bizarro life, the glowing bastard fruit of irradiated breeding experiments involving the DNA of a meticulous, fact-mad journalist, a snarky critic of hippie/hipster/Yuppie mores, an inventive stylist and an old-school fabulist.

Laura Penny lives on the Right Coast. Her latest book is More Money Than Brains.

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