Our literature is inordinately dominated by A+ students who blazed from kindergarten to an MFA while constantly winning prizes from their teachers and cheers from their middle-class parents. No wonder so much of Canadian fiction, from heavily researched historical novels to symbolism-saturated short stories, suffers from the slightly airless atmosphere of the classroom. Temperamentally, Lynn Coady seems closer to a class clown than a keener, a teacher’s pest rather than a teacher’s pet. Which is a big reason hers is such a refreshing voice in CanLit, offering a cross-grained, skeptical view not just of schools and universities but also of asylums, sports teams, and churches. Nor is Coady ignorant of the uglier side of the most poisonously pervasive institution of all: the family.
In The Antagonist, as in her previous three novels and story collection, Coady’s sympathies are with the misfits who rub up against the powers that be, especially the father figures whose imposing yoke requires an immense effort to cast off. Gordon “Rank” Rankin, Jr., the narrator of The Antagonist, is a hulking hick, a sensitive soul who became an unwitting roughneck as a teenager due to an unfortunate combination of family pressure and his own imposing size. The boy’s father is a pipsqueak domestic dictator who tries to fashion his son into a one-man goon squad.
The younger Rankin’s attempt to liberate himself from under his dad’s thumb is complicated by the fact that even in university, others continue to see the gargantuan young man as a latent thug. More troublingly, Rankin has internalized the world’s judgment of him. The Antagonist is, among other things, a study in the twisted psychology of self-hatred.
Coady-watchers will find much that is familiar here: the acute attention to family and group dynamics, the textured understanding of class differences (especially as they play out in university life, where privileged kids mingle with plebeians trying to improve themselves), the uproarious wit.
Violence is a constant theme in Coady’s oeuvre. She sets up great fight scenes, which are all the more impressive because they highlight the fact that bloodshed is rarely a matter of individual choice. Behind most fights, whether in bars or in a hockey rink, there lies an intricate set of social rules and a cheering mob. Very few contemporary writers understand masculinity and macho culture with the empathetic but critical discernment of Coady.
What’s new in The Antagonist is the author’s abandonment of regionalism and her embrace of much more ambitious narrative strategies. Cape Breton was an intensely felt presence in Coady’s early fiction. The Antagonist still has a vaguely East Coast setting, though one rather generically and sketchily described. Less interested in place, Coady’s writerly energies are devoted to finding fresh ways to tell her story.
Not so much a fiction-within-a-fiction, The Antagonist is a counter-narrative, a special genre that includes Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version, Clark Blaise’s Lusts, and Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist. The conceit of The Antagonist has Rankin, now middle-aged and thinking his past has long been buried, stumbling upon a novel by his erstwhile university friend Adam Grix. This novel contains a dismissive and unflattering account of Rankin, who is depicted as a congenital ruffian. Stung by his fictional portrayal, Rankin becomes a cyber-stalker, inundating Grix’s e-mail inbox with corrective, soul-bearing rants offering the purportedly true story that gives lie to the fiction.
Rankin’s e-mails contain a tangled version of his life. He’s not an unreliable narrator, but he is often oblivious to the implications of what he’s writing. As Rankin grows in confidence as a narrator, his own certainty about his past becomes complicated: he realizes that the stories he tells himself are as partial and limiting as the tales others have constructed.
The critic James Wood once described Philip Roth as “the great stealth post-modernist of American letters.” Roth’s fictions are compelling enough for beachside readings, but careful analysts can find in them all sorts of narrative shenanigans designed to destabilize any overly confident interpretation. Coady is also a superb “stealth postmodernist” whose novels are compulsively readable but constructed to complicate our sense of reality.
My only reservations are stylistic. At her best, Coady’s capable of smile-inducing turns of phrase, as when she describes teenagers buying “fragrant rabbit-turds of hash.” On other occasions, her prose tends to be serviceable but slathering, adequate enough to carry the plot forward, but rarely displaying the verbal fireworks that enliven the fiction of Caroline Adderson or Russell Smith.
Such objections are almost beside the point when one considers all the things Coady does so well. She has a hearty wit and a piercing understanding of human nature. The Canada she portrays, a world of struggling oddballs who find the social system stacked against them, is a real place rarely visited by our too-complacent and bourgeois fiction writers. Book by book, Coady has made herself one of our essential writers.