Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

Mean Boy

by Lynn Coady

It’s not often that one hears the term “great minor novel” bandied about in a Canadian literary context, possibly because the scene in this country is still relatively young and close-knit. There isn’t the room or the stomach here for an official pantheon of major and minor deities, as there is in Britain, where one can refer to a Kingsley Amis or a Fanny Burney as a great minor novelist and mean something specific and complimentary.

It may be for the best that we don’t often use phrases like “great minor novel” here; there is, admittedly, something hard and old-school about them. But occasionally a book comes along that fits the description to a T. Lynn Coady’s Mean Boy happens to be such a book. A pitch-perfect comedy of manners set in the English department at a small New Brunswick university, the novel is a welcome reminder that excellence is not the exclusive purview of grand historical narratives, high poetry, or experimental pyrotechnics.

Mean Boy is narrated in the first person by a young creative writing major named Lawrence Campbell, a smalltown-PEI native for whom life revolves around his poetry workshop. He worships the prof, a respected Canadian bard named Jim Arsenault. Lawrence lives and dies by the success of his in-class comments. His social life centres on hanging out at pubs with his classmates, flirting and drinking and arguing about Keats and Byron. In Lawrence’s impressionable mind, the various teapot tempests that blow through the English department over the course of the year (tenure controversies, poetry readings gone awry) have all the gravity and drama of Middle East politics.

For anyone who was once a dorky English major, Coady’s descriptions of campus life in Mean Boy ring almost painfully true. She perfectly captures, for instance, the way that Larry and his peers contort their diction to humorously signify their erudition: “I know this squirrel. I used to be quite fond of her, in fact, her and all her brood, but now I think the squirrel can fuck off,” Lawrence tells us after a tiff with a local rodent who used to come by his window for peanuts. (Arsenault, on the other hand, uses working-class diction – “God love ya, Larry” – to convey an air of salt-of-the-earth authenticity.)

Like Russell Smith, Coady is adept at using and abusing stereotypes. Most of Mean Boy’s characters are instantly familiar, from Lawrence himself to the head of his department, an Oxford grad with a fake English accent and an unfailing conviction that dead British poets are the only writers that matter. Then there’s Charles Slaughter, a gleefully doltish football star who also, against stereotype, happens to be a devoted poetry student and member of Lawrence’s circle, a wonderfully absurd presence among the novel’s assorted aesthetes.

Mean Boy is also an examination of the minutiae of social class, and of the ridiculous behaviours that it breeds in people. One might also read the book as a broad critique of the practitioners of CanLit as an inward-looking clique of out-of-touch geeks. (As a disillusioned visiting scholar says at one point about the Canadian poetry scene, “It’s high school.”)

But while the novel is partly a satire, it simultaneously manages to be a celebration. Yes, this may, as the man says, be high school, but ultimately the characters’ affection for one another feels sincere. And there’s something rather inspiring, given the times we live in, about a place where people, however quixotically, actually still get into shouting matches about Byron and Keats, about language and music and light.

Mean Boy may not appeal to the full spectrum of Canadian readers, but I do hope it finds an audience. The early comedies of manners that came out of Restoration England were written purely for the purpose of bringing tiny, specific groups of people together in order to laugh. Maybe this is why they’re seen today as a relatively minor part of the dramatic repertoire. On the other hand, they’re still being steadily performed, despite their obscurity, more than 200 years after they were written, at a time when many more ambitious works of the period have long since fallen by the wayside.