Zsuzsi Gartner's All the Anxious Girls on Earth: challenging the mind and enlivening the imagination
edited: Wednesday, February 27, 2002
By Charlotte M Spurrill
Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2002
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A look at a British Columbia author's collection of stoires.
"I picture the geniuses fired through the air at the circus. They wear helmets, of course"(25). As Pearly, in "The Premature Death among Geniuses," pictures what the librarian is telling her, we are compelled to picture Zsuzsi Gartner's stories, vividly. Gartner's All the Anxious Girls on Earth is lively and engaging, challenging the mind and enlivening the imagination.
The nine stories in this collection are wonderfully diverse in content. "How to Survive in the Bush," the first of these stories, tells how a woman follows the man whom she is infatuated with to his home in a wilderness area of the Kootenays and tries to enjoy his way of life.
Secondly, "The Tragedy of Premature Death among Geniuses," shows us a mentally challenged woman, Pearly, raising her orphaned nephew and worrying that he may be a genius, and thus die early just as many geniuses have died.
The third story, "City of my dreams," we find a woman named Lewis living in Vancouver, working at a specialty soap store after quitting her job as a programmer for the film festival because a film student lights herself on fire on Lewis' front steps (the student's film has been rejected for the festival). A "little green-haired girl"(34) comes to Lewis' store to eat the soap and when the earthquake comes to destroy the city, the main character wants to find the strange girl so they can both survive in the city's one earthquake-proof building.
Following this, Gartner presents us with a story from a slightly different perspective; "Pest Control for DummiesTM" has a male main character, Jack. Jack has sexual fantasies about his girlfriend's mother as he tries to deal with his girlfriend, Daisy, who is mourning her dead brother.
Perhaps the most disturbing of all the stories, "boys growing" shows us a teacher who becomes romantically involved with several of her male high school students.
The sixth story, "Measuring Death in Column Inches (a nine-week manual for girl rim pigs)," reveals the hardships of working the night shift at a newspaper.
"The Nature of Pure Evil," the seventh of these stories, explores a few moments in the life of Hedy, who makes bomb threats since her lover leaves her on the day of his wedding, a wedding to a woman Hedy had no idea existed before that day.
The eighth story, "Anxious Objects," presents a pampered child and her parents in a crisis over pajamas.
The ninth and final story, "Odds that, all things considered, she'd someday be happy," we see two sets of mothers and daughters. One daughters, the "teen terrorist"(153), kills the other daughter, Gloria, by blowing up the restaurant Gloria is in, attempting suicide. This variety continues into deeper things than plot, as we will see.
Gartner does not seem to have one theme that she carries through the entire book; each story has its own theme worthy of separate lengthy discussion, which we do not have time for here. The themes of these storied, however, are linked to one another, and all are connected in some way to a girl or woman dealing with some problem in her life. Remember, not all the stories have a female as the central character; "Pest Control for DummiesTM" and "Anxious Objects" both have male central characters, allowing a different perspective on the female characters in their stories.
Most of the stories have unresolved and therefore unsatisfying endings. The characters are radically normal, responding to their bizarrely ordinary problems in the same ineffectual way any of the rest of us might respond in their place.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is Gartner's style; she writes all the stories in variations on this same style. These stories are filled with fragmented images, original metaphors, and unexpected associations. Gartner uses language in inventive and unconventional ways to further this very artistic style.
An example of this unconventional style is her focus on the odd behaviours and eccentric personality traits of her characters. Overall, this style conveys feelings powerfully, and the reader understands the presented ideas through something other than reason. The reader finds himself understanding what the story is saying, but he is unable to explain what he understands, since he comprehends it with a part of his consciousness deeper than his reason.
It is difficult to compare this book with other works on the same subject, principally because the subject of this work is hard to define.
If the subject of this book is simply "women" or "female human beings," then we can compare this book to other fictional stories about women, such as Joanna Russ's The Female Man. These two books, The Female Man and All the Anxious Girls on Earth, are both written by women about women and make some interesting comparisons.
All the Anxious Girls on Earth is much easier to read and generally more enjoyable than The Female Man. The Female Man is teeming with didactic passages, and often reads more like a persuasive essay than a novel. Thankfully, All the Anxious Girls on Earth refrains from essays and obvious didacticism. Also, Gartner's plots are easier to follow than Russ', and her characters are also more engaging.
Much like The Female Man, All the Anxious Girls on Earth has quite a narrow audience that would appreciate it. Because of its style and content, it is most suitable for readers in grade twelve and higher. In addition, readers who have an interest in literature and have experience with many literary forms will understand and enjoy this book better than those who do not. Generally, those who have at least some university education are the intended audience of this book.
One limiting factor on readers who would enjoy these stories is the "grossness" of many of the stories. References to "baby skulls"(62) and "a jockstrap"(101) worn on a woman's face will repel many readers before they have a chance to appreciate the art. However, to those who can see past the revolting aspects are treated with the true beauty of Gartner's talent.
It is difficult to discern if All the Anxious Girls on Earth is successful in conveying its ideas. It certainly conveys ideas more effectively to the same people who would enjoy it. The average uneducated person would miss the point of most, if not all the stories. The one story that conveys its ideas the most effectively and appeals to the largest audience is "The Tragedy of Premature Death among Geniuses," perhaps because such a simple-minded woman narrates it.
Overall, Gartner's book is a worthwhile read for literature students. It challenges and invigorates the reader's mind. Simply put, All the Anxious Girls on Earth contributes itself to the field of Canadian Literature. It is original, quality Canadian literature.
Gartner, Zsuzsi. All the Anxious Girls on Earth. Canada: Key Porter Books Limited, 1999.