In 2011, Lynn Coady’s novel The Antagonist was shortlisted for the Giller Prize (my thoughts here), and it was one of my favorites of that year. Looking back on my post, I see I almost had it in my first-place spot. I was excited, then, to see that she made the shortlist again this year with a collection of short stories, Hellgoing (2013). This is my second book of this year’s shortlist, and though I liked it, there’s something vague in my response. I’m hoping it isn’t in my top spot for this year’s prize.
Hellgoing is comprised of nine energetic stories. I say energetic because Coady employs a kind of hip, sardonic voice in most of the stories that really makes them hum along. The characters rarely want to take things seriously — even serious things.
For example, in the title story, Theresa, a forty-four-year-old mother is visiting friends, telling them about how her father had recently said she was fat. Theresa sees this — and Coady makes this explicit — as the punchline to a joke:
“She didn’t tell her friends about anything else — the climax of the story had been told: Put on a few pounds, didn’t ya? Ba dum bump. Punchline!”
She’s venting to her friends but telling them in such a way that it comes off as slightly humorous. Of course, she’s deeply offended by what her father said. Of course, it’s easier to make him look ridiculous rather than deal with her dire relationship with the man.
This tone works well in “Hellgoing,” where Theresa is also trying to deal with her brother, a brother who always used to be a kind of slacker enemy but who now seems to have everything together and under complete control. Her brother has even managed to tame their father in some ways. Theresa doesn’t tell her friends about her brother, nor does she get into what’s really bothering her: the fact that her own life feels so out of control.
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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.
Giller Prize night is only 10 days away and the Shadow Jury is completing its reading before heading into deliberations (our objective is to post our choice here on Friday, Nov. 4). In the meantime, here are the opening paragraphs of Kimbofo’s review of The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady — full review is here:
A misunderstood giant who confronts his past is the subject of Lynn Coady’s Giller shortlisted novel The Antagonist.
The giant is Gordon “Rank” Rankin, adopted at birth by Sylvie and Gordon Senior, a well-meaning but mismatched couple — “The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess” — who raise him in small town Canada.
A larger-than-normal child, Rank looks like a fully grown man by the age of 14. With this comes all kinds of complications — people treat him like an adult even though he’s just a teenage boy — and he struggles to get on with his father, a short, angry man, whom he realises he “could’ve taken” at just age six “if I’d wanted”.
Their relationship, which is largely the focus of this novel, becomes more strained when Sylvie is killed in a car accident, leaving Gordon Snr to raise 16-year-old Rank alone.
But Coady gives this tale of a difficult father-son relationship a new twist. She has Rank looking back on his troubled past from the perspective of a soon-to-be-40-year-old man who has supposedly changed his ways, although it’s clear he is filled with resentment and has a special talent for holding grudges. It’s written epistolary style, in a series of emails to a college classmate, over a three-month period in 2009.
KfC’s review of The Antagonist is here.
Author Lynn Coady wastes little time in introducing the reader to the “antagonistic” nature of her central character, Gordon Rankin, universally known since childhood as “Rank” since he shares his name with his father. Here is her opening paragraph:
There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people. That is, afraid of being fat, and hating those who were, so fear and hating, like of a contagion, the same way homophobes — guys who are actually maybe gay or have the potential for gayness within them — are thought to be afraid of homos. So want to annihilate them, make them not exist. You said you were embarrassed by it, though, your hatred of fat people, your fear. You knew it was shallow. You knew it was wrong. You thought it was a prejudice that it was beneath the enlighted likes of you. And now, with all this time gone by, here you are in the picture. Looking chubby and pompous.
What has provoked this outburst? Rank’s old college running-mate, Adam, has just published a book. Rank thinks he recognizes his college self in the book and he doesn’t like the portrayal. So he’s decided to take the summer to write his own “book” in retaliation — in the form of a string of lengthy emails to Adam. The fact that Rank is now approaching 40 and the events of both “books” (we never get to see any of Adam’s beyond some of Rank’s impressions) took place a couple of decades ago would seem proof positive that our antagonist is capable of holding a grudge for a very, very long time.
Here’s another early expansion of Rank’s character, still in his first email to Adam, which also introduces most of the elements of his “story”:
I was born in a small town. That is not such a big feat in this country. You were born in a small town, John Cougar [Mellencamp] was, Springsteen the Jew, everybody was born in a small town. Whoop-de-shit. Let’s not name a specific territory. We both know they are all the fucking same.
There was a dad, there was a mom. You know this too, approximately. The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess. Gord and Sylvie.
Already this feels like a cliche, which is the fault of none other than Adam. It wouldn’t feel that way if you didn’t exist. It wouldn’t be part of someone else’s fairy tale, it would just be my own nameless stench, hanging over me. The biggest pisser? The fact that the cliche of me was all you really took, you boiled an entire life, an entire human being, Adam, down into his most basic, boneheaded elements. Good mom plus bad dad hinting at the predictable Oedipal (oh give me a fucking break) background of — voila — Danger Man! One seriously messed up dude. Not very creative of you is what I’m saying.
This review has featured a couple of long quotes already because it seems only fair to let the author establish her own story. If you find them off-putting, this is not the book for you. If they strike a responsive chord or even a neutral one, read on.
While Adam serves as the lightning rod for Rank’s current burst of outrage, there are obviously a number of large chips on his shoulder that extend back well before his college days. Most of them focus on his “father”, Gord — Rank, born out of wedlock, was adopted and Gord announced to the nuns when the quite large 10-pound infant was introduced to him and Sylvie “the little bastard’s old enough to drive.” Gord has delighted in telling that story, with the double entendre of “bastard” since it is a description he frequently uses, ever since.
As Rank sees it, Gord (who is only 5’5 1/2″) has small persons’ syndrome, among his many other failings. So when Rank has his first growth spurt at age 14 (there will be another) and turns into a very large hulk early on, Gord (at least in Rank’s opinion) engages in some serious projection on his adopted son. Rank’s first job in his early teens is to serve as a parking lot bouncer at Icy Dream, Gord’s Dairy Queen-like business, sending drug dealers and users on their way — a violent incident in the lot ends up with Rank heading to reform school. While imprisoned there, a sympathetic counsellor puts Rank into hockey where his size proves such an advantage that he ends up with a hockey scholarship at a New Brunswick university — hockey goons have to come from somewhere after all. His refusal to obey a coach’s instruction to beat up the opposition means an end to that scholarship and begins the series of incidents with Adam (a bookish nerd who is one of an unlikely quartet including Rank who hang around together) that provoke this book. I won’t reveal them.
There is no doubt that anger and resentment are the dominant themes in the novel, all serving Rank’s victim identity. And the death of three National Hockey League versions of Rank this summer (two by suicide, one an overdose) add a topicality to the story that Coady could not have foreseen.
On the less depressing side of the coin, however, it should be noted that Coady does find moments in her novel to introduce some perceptive observations. Consider, for example, how Icy Dream came to be the family business:
Another example of my father’s monomania: he always tells the story of how, once he got the loans together to buy some kind of franchise, he had “the choice” between an Icy Dream and a Java Joe’s. Like it could only possibly be one or the other — the wrong choice and the right. As if some kind of celestial fast-food overseer descended from the heavens with a ID cone in one hand and crumpled JJ’s cup in the other — obliterating all possibility of, say, a Pizza Hut, a Mickey Dee’s — displayed them both to Gord and thundered: Pick!
As Rank notes with some delight (since he loathes Gord even more than Adam), in the town of 7,500 his dad’s lone Icy Dream is currently surrounded by no less than six JJ’s coffee outlets: “‘I never claimed to be a prophet,’ shrugs Gord when the topic of the Great ID Wrong Decision of 1981 comes up.” Canadians, at least, will find a number of similar observations about how events and decisions made in the 1980s produced the country and communities of 2009, the present tense of the novel.
It was those elements that kept me interested in The Antagonist. A secondary theme, perhaps even stronger, is that I have known a few versions of Rank in my time: Canada does have enough young hockey thugs who grow into men, often resentful, that most mature males know more than one or two. The problem, however, is that Rank is not only an unsympathetic character, he is a pretty one-dimensional one, in both his youth and current middle age. Were it not for the memories that Coady raised of similar people that I knew, I would have had even more issues with the book.
I suspect that is true of most coming-of-age novels: if they don’t spark personal memories, or if the character is not made interesting, they just don’t work. Coady obviously succeeded in doing this with members of the Giller jury with her book being chosen for the longlist — I am not sure she will be that successful with many readers.