Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady is the literary equivalent of watching your kid win gold at the Olympics.

I received Lynn Coady's third novel, Mean Boy, as a Christmas gift about four or five years ago and I let it sit on the shelf until well after New Year's Day. The fact that it was written by someone I had never heard of before was only one of the reasons why I let it linger for so long. When my parents buy me books, unless I instructed them on the correct ones to buy, I hesitate. Or at least, I used to. But Lynn Coady single-handedly made my father's book-buying choices credible. I couldn't put Mean Boy down. One time on the bus, I looked up from the book and realized I was in Burnaby. I simply took it as a sign and skipped work that day. Mean Boy was the gate-way book, and soon I was addicted to Coady. (That sounds like slang for Codeine! Interesting!)

Can you imagine my reaction when I heard she was putting out another novel? You don't have to, it went like this:

Mom: What?
Me: Oooooo Oooooo Oooooo!
Mom: What's the matter with you?
Mom: Would you get that out of my face?

This went on for several more minutes, much to my mother's annoyance. When my Mom is annoyed, she knits her brow AND bulges out her eyes. That's hard to do!

The book is an nouveau-epistolary novel; instead of written letters, it's emails. The novel begins with Rank, the skull-smashing, alcohol-swilling, bruiser-of-a-bastard protagonist, reaming out some guy named Adam over email. It takes a while before the back story comes to light and we discover that Adam has gained moderate notoriety by writing a book that exposes Rank's life as a veritable tossed-salad of questionable wrong-doings. To put it simply, Rank is somewhat miffed with the portrait Adam has painted of him and he alerts Adam to this fact. Put simply. But in true Coady style, the simplicity of the idea is put to sleep, disemboweled and left in a big mess on the operating table.

Initially, I was a little disappointed that the novel took an epistolary format. Lynn Coady is one of the best writers of dialogue I've ever read and I was worried this style would not showcase her best assets. By referring to events in the past, and often transporting the reader back to these events with tense changes and flashbacks, the dialogue makes an appearance and lives up to the traditional Coady standards. Her male characters in particular, have a way of turning phrases with the rough elegance of a sea mariner, and the dirty mouth to match. That's another thing: if you want to learn how to swear properly, read a Lynn Coady novel. Her characters are as comfortable using the word fuck as British people are with the word brilliant.

As the novel progresses, Rank's anger slowly changes into a more contemplative emotion, somewhere between hurt and self-justification. Rank initially struggles to tell his story in a linear way, but eventually he allows his narrative to dip in and out of the past so that he comes to craft his story in a way that serves his purpose. He tells the story of a boy so completely misunderstood by society on account of his monstrous physique that he comes to almost believe the hype himself. Rank's irrevocably fractured self-image, once a source of intense psychological dissonance, is eventually remoulded as a sort of badge of honour. The ending to the novel is one of my favourite endings of all time. So smoke that!

I feel, in an off kilter, round about way, to be somehow a part of the greatness of this novel. In the same way that a mother takes a slice of responsibility when her child stands on the podium, sings the national anthem and accepts the gold. "Yeah but I loved her from the beginning", she'll say, "I waiting up for her to come home at night and even though she never noticed, I cheered her on from the sidelines."

It's got to count for something.