31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 29: “The Nature of Pure Evil” by Zsuzsi Gartner
From All the Anxious Girls on Earth
Sometimes, stories take on extra resonance in retrospect. I first read “The Nature of Pure Evil” in 1999, when the now-defunct Key Porter Books released All the Anxious Girls on Earth, Zsuzsi Gartner’s debut story collection. In the wake of last year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize nomination for her follow-up, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Penguin Canada has re-released All the Anxious Girls, allowing me to reacquaint myself with the story of Hedy, who calls in fake bomb threats to Vancouver businesses as a kind of sublimated revenge after her partner of seven years, Stanley, abandons her in a spectacular fashion.
When the story first appeared, 9/11 had yet to occur, although terrorists had made one attempt at bombing the World Trade Center, in 1993, and in 1995 Timothy McVeigh had successfully bombed Oklahoma City’s Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. This latter incident, especially, brought the notion of domestic terrorism to the forefront of North American consciousness. Nevertheless, there is a different sense of unease that pervades a reading of Gartner’s story in a post-9/11 environment. The story unfolds as a kind of philosophical deconstruction of evil in modern society, and the questions it asks – What is evil? How do we identify it? Is it absolute, or is it relative? – are urgent, particularly given the explicitly religious context in which they are positioned.
The first reference to religion occurs in the story’s opening paragraph, which sees Hedy reaching for the phone to call in a bomb threat to the TD Tower across from her office. This is not the first such threat she has made: we are told that she has done something similar on at least three prior occasions. This time, she imagines standing at the window of her building and watching the occupants of the TD Tower flee. “It’s a disruption of commerce, nothing more,” she thinks, likening herself to Jesus driving the moneylenders out of the temple. Hedy is not devout – her knowledge of Jesus comes not from the Bible, but from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar – yet she imagines herself akin to Jesus on several occasions. After calling in a bomb threat to the Four Seasons hotel, she watches the people (including her ex, Stanley) milling about in the crowd and gets the impression they are enjoying themselves. “People had something to discuss while they waited at bus stops and SkyTrain stations,” she thinks. “They were talking to each other. By casting them out into the street, Hedy had done them all a favour. Like Jesus.”
The mentions of Jesus are counterpointed by imagery and metaphors evoking the Devil, either explicitly or less directly. After Stanley leaves her, Hedy’s work colleague, Brigit, takes her out for a meal with a group of women who spend much time bickering over the nature of evil. During the discussion, one of the women, “a practising family therapist,” tells a story about going to an open house in Ottawa and being disconcerted by one bedroom, the ceiling of which is painted black with a red pentagram on it. Mary Tan, a French immersion teacher, claims that the story makes the hair on her arms stand up, while Donna, “who was unbelievably thin despite her seven-month pregnancy” is somewhat less moved: “I find it really hard to believe they wouldn’t have painted the ceiling over before attempting to sell such a prime piece of real estate.”
The Devil rears his head again later, when one of the women refers to another as “the devil’s advocate”; prior to this Mary eyes her dessert lasciviously, saying, “It’s devilish, it’s evil, I love it.”
Here, evil is reduced to mere chatter, fodder for throwaway conversation over a dining table. For Donna, the pentagram on the ceiling does not represent anything more diabolical than a blot on an otherwise salable property. And it’s more than a bit ironic that the family therapist is the one to make the comment, “When you’ve come into contact with pure evil, there’s no mistaking it.” (Gartner is particularly good at piercing the pretensions of the modern grief industry by forcing them to abut more serious philosophical material.)
For her part, Brigit considers Stanley to be the embodiment of evil because of what he does to Hedy. “Whenever Hedy insisted Stanley had never been the slightest bit crazy, Brigit said, ‘Then he must be pure evil. There’s no other explanation for that kind of behaviour.’ ” Brigit rightly identifies a lack of remorse as one of the defining characteristics of psychopathy, a category she lumps Stanley into: “Hitler, Clifford Olson, David Koresh, those blond monsters in St. Catharines, all anonymous albino hitmen everywhere … and Stanley.” She may indeed be correct. The notion of “pure evil” may be a chimera, but where remorselessness is concerned, the difference between Paul Bernardo and Stanley may be one of degree, not kind.
However, Hedy frustrates Brigit by refusing to condemn Stanley, and does not give in to despair or anger. She acts out her feelings of aggression by calling in her fake bomb threats, which is difficult to accept, even if she and the women at the restaurant tend to view the act as a victimless crime. Nevertheless, Hedy is presented as being at least close to happy: as she moves through the lobby of her office building on the way to a pay phone to make her next call, she is described as feeling “positively grand.” Brigit presents Hedy with a magazine article about a psychiatrist “who thinks happiness should be classified as a mental condition – because it’s a highly abnormal state of being.” Where, we are led to ponder, does that leave Hedy, who feels completely justified and at peace with herself and her actions? “Didn’t Jesus say, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?” Hedy thinks. “Everyone knows that from their elementary school catechism. And Hedy, well, she is without sin. She is the lamb.”