Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Lynn Coady came to serious literary attention when her novel, The Antagonist, was shortlisted for the 2011 Giller Prize. The central character in that one, Rank, is a former hockey bully, now a middle-aged teacher. Rank’s distinguishing characteristic, beyond his critical review of his own upbringing, is a current rage at just about everything around him, but most particularly his father and a former college buddy who intends to write a novel based on those days (The Antagonist is structured as a series of angry e-mails to that buddy).

That description hardly promises a “literary novel”, so Coady’s success was a bit of a surprise. I thought at the time that what made her premise succeed was her ability to develop the novel as a series of set pieces — and those set pieces were uniformly good.

All of which implied that she might be a very good short story writer, so I was not totally surprised when her collection, Hellgoing, showed up on the 2013 Giller longlist (and has now advanced to the shortlist). I’ll cut right to the chase: the collection confirms that she is a “good” short story writer but I am not at all sure that this collection is good enough to deserve the shortlisting.

11shadow logoMost of the stories in Hellgoing feature a female central character who is undergoing “relationship” issues — be that with a lover, family or friends. The various relationships are in a period of tension, not yet shattering but a growing one that does carry threats. And in most of these stories the growth in tension comes when one set of “relationships” starts to overlap with another.

The title story opens with 44-year-old Theresa informing a hen party of friends that her recent Thanksgiving visit home was most notable for her father’s opening observation that she was “fat” — and that has plunged her into a review of her family relationship. Her mother died a few months ago and her brother, the recently-divorced Ricky (whom she never got along with), has moved in with her father — it was Ricky who asked Theresa to make a Thanksgiving visit home.

She had expected the worst when [Ricky] decided to move in with their father after their mother’s death and Ricky’s divorce. She had expected the two men, who were so alike already, to simply merge into one horrific masculine amalgam. And end up one of those bachelor pairs of fathers and sons that she knew so well from back home, finishing each other’s sentences, eating the same thing every day — cereal, cheddar, toast, bologna with ketchup — pissing in the kitchen sink because the bathroom was too far away, wiping their hands on the arms of chairs after finishing up a meal of cereal and cheese. Served on a TV tray. A TV tray never folded and put away, never scrubbed free of solidified ketchup puddles, never not stationed in front of a chair.

What she discovers is far different: “Theresa arrived in her childhood home to finds things neat, dust-free and zero TV trays in sight. Their father was expected to come to the table when his tea was ready — he didn’t get it brought to him, like their mother would have done.” Far from finding this a pleasant surprise, Theresa moves into a mode of questioning her own self-confidence, one that gets worse when her father refers to her weight (“I have had babies! Put on some pounds? I’ve put on some pounds?“)

The story takes a different turn when Coady reveals that Theresa has been telling this story to her friends, obviously looking for sympathy, and they respond by telling their own stories rather than commiserating with hers.

She was the Assistant Chair of her department. She had a paper coming out in Hypatia. She was flying to Innsbruck, Austria, in the spring to deliver that very paper. There would be another conference in Santa Cruz a few months later where she was the keynote motherfucking speaker. She was being flown down there. I am being flown down there, she’d hacked, asphyxiating on the rest of the sentence.

Relationship issues aren’t the source of Theresa’s identity problem — they just bring it into sudden focus.

The story “Body Condom” features Kim, another woman in middle-age, who a few months ago “agreed to be in love with Hart.” The two are just-getting-by musicians but don’t have much else in common:

At first, deciding to be in love felt to Kim like a process of having to explain to Hart, in different ways, every day, that she was nothing like him. And Hart not believing her, and her having to convince him. Then one day the process came to an end — Hart abruptly agreed to consider each one of them as individual people with separate experiences and different points of view.

“You’re not as gregarious as I am,” Hart announced one day after failing to drag her to a friend’s open mic event. “You don’t need as much social stimulation.”

The relationship tension escalator in this one is a visit to Vancouver Island to meet Hart’s divorced parents — his mother and brother live in Port Alice on one end of the island and his father (whose “girl friend” is Kim’s age) lives an eight-hour drive away on the other (it is a big island, after all). Hart knows there may be problems, so they will be camping rather than staying with either parent — and he’s arranged both a two-day yoga retreat and one day of surfing lessons (the “body condom” of the title is a reference to the “two-inch-thick elephant skins of neoprene” they wear for surfing) to offset whatever family-based stresses might arise.

As in “Hellgoing”, most of this story is about the heightened identity issues for Kim that all this brings into focus — her love affair is shaky at best, adding in the family issues only makes that worse. End of story.

As I said earlier, these stories (and the other seven in the book) read just fine. If I had come across any of them in the New Yorker (just about the only source with short stories that I come across except for collections), I’d finish each one with a “that was okay” and move on to the next article.

The problem is that a truly successful story does more than that: despite its lack of length, it plants itself in memory and causes the reader to invent his or her own twists and turns that are based on the story. Coady’s stories don’t do that, they slip away. I finished reading the book a couple weeks before sitting down to write this review and had to check the opening of each of the nine to remind me what they were about — and even the two that I chose to feature (because I did remember them best) needed re-reading before I started to write the review since neither had grown or even lived on in memory.

The Real Giller jury features some talented short story writers so they obviously discovered more in the collection than I did — I can’t help but wonder if female readers may find more in the characters than landed with me. I am more than happy that the jury has again put on short story collection on the short list because the genre deserves promotion — equally, however, I can’t help but think they could have found a better example.

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6 Responses to “Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady”

  1. David Says:

    It’s now a month since I read this collection, Kevin, and despite my initially having a largely positive reaction I’m now having the same problem as you in recalling the individual stories. I recall particularly liking the title story (loved the bit about unreliable signifiers with the flag on the mailbox), ‘Body Condom’ and the final one (‘Mr Hope’) but without going and looking I honestly can’t remember what ‘Mr Hope’ is about. I don’t know if stories (or novels for that matter) have to be memorable to be “good”, but when a story that takes maybe half an hour to read can still be living on in my mind months later that seems me to be a mark of really good writing. There are a couple of Charles Baxter stories I read back in February for instance that I still can’t get out of my head. None of Coady’s do that.

    I know there were two stories in Hellgoing I had problems with – ‘Clear Skies’ about a writers’ retreat which had an ending that I just didn’t get, and ‘Dogs in Clothes’ which for me tried far too hard to be clever. I read an interview with Coady online after her longlisting (which I can’t now seem to find) where the interviewer is asking her about that story and about the character being a “dogsbody” to which Coady replies in a nudge-wink style something along the lines of “see, now you’re getting it” and there’s something of that smug d’you-see-what-I-did-there cleverness about a few of these stories that meant whilst I admired them, I couldn’t really connect with them.

    I think it’s a good solid collection, and I certainly preferred it to Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s book (I admired the craft of those too, but really disliked several of the stories), but I like the two novels of Coady’s I’ve read a lot more.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Well, ‘Mr.Hope’ was my third choice (he’s a somewhat deviant school principal if that brings any of it back to mind for you), so our tastes are again very similar. And I almost made reference to the flag on the mailbox in ‘Hellgoing’ — if I had been able to come up with the phrase “unreliable signifier” I probably would have noted it, since “unreliable signifier” is an apt description of much of what takes place in the story.

      I should also note that ‘Clear Skies’ also came back to mind when I re-read the opening paragraph, but in a very negative way. I could not help thinking when I read it the first time that it was a thinly-veiled re-creation of the author’s own experience at some retreat — told very much from a somewhat cruel “nudge-wink” perspective rather than an honest exploration of what happened to her. That is a speculative response on my part, I admit, but at least an honest one. And I can’t remember the ending.

      As for stories that remain in memory, I have only read five from Theodora Armstrong’s Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility and remember two of those quite well. And that is more than two months after reading them — I set the book aside in mid-July when Booker action started, thinking I would return to it if it made the Giller longlist. I still intend to finish it later this year.

      On balance, I’d say Coady’s best m├ętier would be the episodic novel, featuring offbeat characters, that can be told in a succession of set pieces — which is pretty much what she did in The Antagonist.

  2. Buried In Print Says:

    As you know, I usually simply leave comments here during Giller season and don’t include a link to what I’ve posted myself about the works, but I hope you won’t mind if I do so here regarding this collection, because I’ve had such a different response. For me, the stories are disturbingly memorable. (Even though I’d rather forget some of them.) And I have yet to finish three of the longlisted works but, at least so far, this collection is on my personal shortlist.

    As for other collections, I’m curious which Baxter collection is being discussed (because I’ve quite enjoyed some of his essays and Feast of Love and this sounds like something I want to read) and I was rather surprised that Armstrong’s collection didn’t make the longlist this year.

    I find it fascinating that this particular jury chose both deMariaffi’s and Coady’s collections, being so different stylistically (though perhaps, now that I think about it, not so different thematically).

    But of course, that’s what makes all of this so interesting, how differently each of us responds to a given story and its telling.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      WordPress seems to have edited out the link to your review: http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=11552 . Trevor, David and I did not find much memorable in the collection but it seems the Real Jury did.

    • David Says:

      Hi, BIP: the Baxter collection was ‘Through the Safety Net’ – all good stories, but two in particular are lodged in my mind and rank amongst my favourite stories I’ve read this year (40 collections so far).
      Armstrong would’ve made my longlist too, as would Astrid Blodgett’s ‘You haven’t Changed a BIt’ and Shaena Lambert’s ‘Oh, My Darling’.

      • Buried In Print Says:

        Thanks, David. Agreed that Lambert’s stories are remarkable. Each so distinct and beautifully crafted. That’s the second rec in a week’s time for Blodgett’s stories, which I had coming to me anyhow, so now I am doubly intrigued; that earlier recommender also suggested Nancy Jo Cullen’s stories in Canary, so I’m looking for a copy of it too (as well as having requested the Baxter collection via ILL). They’ll have to wait until I finish the final three longlisted titles, but I’m looking forward to them all the same.

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