Canadian short-story writer Zsuzsi Gartner writes barbed social satire, always infused with whimsy and often driven by supernatural conceits. One of her latest collection's best stories, "Investment Results May Vary," tracks two women, one a Hummer-driving real estate agent sweating to help her down-at-the-heels extended family, the other an obsessively anti-bourgeois basement dweller doing community service (in a marmot suit) for a misguided act of consciousness-raising. Meanwhile, the tony houses of Vancouver's North Shore are being inexplicably sucked into the earth. It's a lot of wackiness to take in, but Gartner grounds the fantastical material with sympathetic portrayals of her principal characters, resulting in an affecting collage of environmental and social dread.
Gartner's packed sentences, anxious narrators and speculative comedy recall Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace and George Saunders. At times her devices (the not-quite-convincing first-person plural, the footnotes) seem like the novelties of yesterday's in-crowd. A few of the stories are inventively, admirably dull.
Most, though, find a witty balance between anger and bemusement and are especially sharp on class antagonism. In "Summer of the Flesh Eater," an everyman spurs a strange devolution in a genteel, liberal cul-de-sac. Throughout the collection, Gartner skewers the trendy pieties and feckless sarcasm of suburban professionals while remembering, as one character puts it, that "nothing good has ever come of romanticizing the downtrodden."
The stories are discrete, but several images, words, names and references recur; at first this seems merely redundant, but eventually the cross-story echoes foster an interesting paradox, concentrating the book's world while suggesting links around its expanding edges.