I have a confession to make. Before Zsuzsi Gartner’s new book was pitched to me as her debut novel, it hadn’t occurred to me that she had not written a novel before. It’s not that I mistook someone else’s for hers, or one of her short story collections for a novel. It’s just that I think of Gartner as being such a fixture in Canadian literature that it hadn’t occurred to me that she hadn’t written a novel. (I know – you can write short stories exclusively and be a Canlit icon – or Nobel Prize winner; see: Alice Munro.)
Gartner has published two short-story collections, All the Anxious Girls on Earth and Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, which was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She is the editor of the award-winning anthology Darwin’s Bastards: Astounding Tales from Tomorrow. She has also taught, been a writer-in-residence and published award-winning journalism.
The Beguiling, which was published in September and was shortlisted this week for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Award is her first novel.
“I don’t know why I haven’t written one before,” says Gartner, during a recent interview. “Things come to you in a certain way. They kind of speak their genre or length to you.” She also, frankly, worried about spending that amount of time on one project. “I am a very restless-minded person and to invest so many years in one thing, I didn’t want to get bored.”
Still, she received some pressure from her son, now 20, about the matter. “He basically kept saying, ‘you’re such a great writer, but nobody’s going to read you if you only keep writing stories.’ Which I find, I have to say, very insulting, because I have never viewed the short story as a warm-up act to the novel.”
It worked out. Her son was her first reader and as she notes in her acknowledgments, he pulled no punches. And she dedicated the book to him, her “most beloved and honest taskmaster.”
At a very basic level, The Beguiling is about a woman named Lucy who, after the death of her cousin Zoltán in bizarre circumstances, begins to attract confessions from people she encounters – sometimes strangers, sometimes acquaintances. Deep, dark secrets like arson, a murder frame-up, in-utero fratricide.
These embedded confessions helped ensure that Gartner did not get bored with her book – which took her about eight years, on and off, give or take, to write.
She offers another reason for having hesitated to write a novel. “I am of the mind that every word matters, every sentence matters. Every ‘and’ you have in there should be there for a reason. And my stories are quite dense and I thought that would be rather a) hard to pull off in that way. And, b), excruciating for the reader.”
Reader, she pulls it off. The Beguiling is certainly no beach read, but nor is it excruciating. The writing is exquisite, with sentences that pack punches and are thick with references – from classical (Homer, Dickens) to pop cultural (Nick Cave, Charlie Brown). It also contains one whopper of a sentence, as Calgary Wordfest CEO Shelley Youngblut pointed out during the book’s online launch: 468 words (!), over 45 lines.
The Writers' Trust jury citation called it “an exquisitely crafted, profoundly readable novel about the human compulsion to seek absolution in strangers, a page-turner so compelling, so inventive, so weirdly weird, readers will feel like they’ve been to a party that leaves them wondering at the genius of the host who pulled it off.”
This is a story told nowhere near straight. It twists, it twirls, it arcs, it changes tack. It keeps you on your toes.
“There’s ways to do a novel that isn’t, you know, A to B to C to Z,” says Gartner.
We’re talking (before the shortlist announcement) in my yard, physically distanced, in the East Vancouver neighbourhood where we both live. It’s known as Commercial Drive (for the local main street) or, simply, The Drive. On the day we meet, Gartner embodies the Drive vibe, cycling over in her tuque, sundress, bike shorts and Blundstones with wool socks.
I mention the neighbourhood because it features prominently in the book, with very specific references to its parks, local businesses – coffee shops, the Drive’s still-operating video store – even particular buskers. And schools – including the Catholic school Gartner’s son attended for a while. Gartner, who calls herself a three-times-lapsed Catholic, experienced her final lapse when her son’s teacher explained to him that his parents were sinners for not going to church.
Anyway, Gartner is much more interested in science these days. Another theme in the novel, and a major preoccupation of Gartner’s, is climate change. One section of the book is set in the near future, in drought-ridden, fire-ravaged Australia. Where socialites “partied by the shore as end times drifted closer.”
In this same part of the book – written long before the pandemic – there is a reference to people binge-watching “plague porn” on Netflix and Disney Plus.
Gartner has been suffering from what she calls COVID anxiety. In the early days, she would come home from grocery shopping in a fear-induced sweat. She will still not hesitate to tell strangers to mask up, as she recently suggested to a customer at an electronics store.
But her anxiety has transformed into something else.
“The fear just slowly dissipated as more information came out,” she says. “You know what I’m at now? I’m enraged. I’m totally enraged by people just acting like nothing’s happening. When so many people have made such a big effort.”
So she’s excited about the swag being offered to some book buyers leading up to the official Vancouver launch on Oct. 8 (online from the new bookstore Upstart & Crow): a limited edition Beguiling face mask. “I thought, this is going to be with us for a while. So we’re going to need all these masks.”
In The Beguiling, Zoltán is a big movie buff. So Gartner has come up with a list of some favourite confession scenes from film.
- I Confess (1953, U.S.) dir. Alfred Hitchcock (starring Montgomery Clift as a yummy priest – fun fact: shot in a very moody-looking Quebec City)
- The Sound of Music (1965, U.S.) dir. Richard Wise. Reverend Mother: “What is it you can’t face, child?” Maria: “I can’t face him again!”
- The Breakfast Club (1985, U.S.) dir. John Hughes. “The bizarre thing is, I did it for my old man. I tortured this poor kid because I wanted him to think I was cool.” Andrew (Emilio Estevez)
- Lilies (1996, Canada) dir. John Greyson
- In Bruges (2008, U.K./U.S.) dir. Martin McDonagh
- Calvary (2014, Ireland) dir. John Michael McDonagh. “I’m going kill you, Father.” (oh those crazy McDonagh brothers!)
- The Club (2015, Chile) dir. Pablo Larrain
- The Two Popes (2019, U.K., U.S., Italy, Argentina) dir. Fernando Meirelles
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