The Antagonist

By Lynn Coady

It should come as no surprise to observers of the Canadian economy that for the past couple of decades it has been fiction from the East Coast that has most consistently championed naturalistic social realism and explored the lives of the working poor. Perhaps the best known of these voices from the mine, the logging town, and the kitchen sink belongs to David Adams Richards, but one could also add prominent names like Alistair MacLeod, Kenneth J. Harvey, and Lynn Coady, among a whole tribe of others.

Coady’s latest tells the story of one Gordon Rankin a strapping young man saddled with an unfortunate nickmane (Rank) who grows up in a generic East Coast setting after being adopted by a fatefully mismatched couple (he’s a crotchety yokel, she’s a decent French-Canadian Catholic gal). In the novel’s time present he is living in Hamilton – aside from Sudbury perhaps the closest Ontario correlative of Cape Breton or the Miramichi – where he teaches high school history.

That notion of fate I mentioned is central to the novel, as Rank has a big one that he carries about, frequently likening it to the persecutions heaped by “the gang from Mount Olympus” on the doomed heroes of Greek tragedy. The book takes the form of a series of angry emails from Rank to a former pal from University named Adam who has just written a book drawing on Rank’s life experiences. Indeed Adam is just the most recent of a long string of people who have been picking on Rank throughout his life: stereotyping him as a backwoods hulk and using him as an enforcer. Despite being “a big fucking guy,” Rank, as a result of his upbringing and regional resentment, lives the life of the little guy, one of the “scummy people” put upon and exploited by the government, children of privilege, and snobby intellectual elites.

This scheme could get reductive and simplistic, as it frequently does in a Richards novel, but Coady has a real instinct for drawing Rank’s social milieu and the mindset of hopelessness, resentment and bitterness it engenders. Less persuasive is Rank’s voice, which can become quite literary in its effects, and the concept of the email novel, which gradually breaks down as Rank starts to see himself more as a narrative voice while “Rank” (in the third person) becomes a character in the story. Most damaging of all, however, is the technique of playing coy by hinting at terrible events several times throughout the novel and then dragging out their revelation. This is an easy trick usually overindulged by novice writers since its obviousness is only made worse by the fact that the payoff rarely lives up the tease. Coady is too good a writer to be doing things like this.

Like most tragic victims, Rank is to some degree the author of his own misfortunes – a judgment that extends to his own compulsive and at times embarrassing and painful confessions. Rank’s performance is both a form of penance and an attempt to replace Adam’s “steaming turd of half-truths” with the “glorious, terrible, complex, astonishing truth of Reality.” And so he bares his soul to Adam, “yanking off one strip of flesh after another and feeding it into cyberspace.” We may feel like turning away, but it’s to Coady’s credit that she compels us to watch and also share some of Rank’s experience of cathartic grace.

Review first published October 8, 2011.

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