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.
Most 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.