By Lynn Coady
For several years Lynn Coady – whose last novel, The Antagonist, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – hosted a “group therapy” advice column for the Globe and Mail. It’s an experience that may have had some influence on the stories in Hellgoing. Throughout the book she presents relationships fraught with moral and emotional complexities, and though her subject matter remains contemporary and her approach realistic, her characters always seem out of synch with their world and each other. As with the scenarios presented in the advice column, the reader is called upon to interpret and make sense of the messes these people have made of their lives.
The source of the problem usually lies in people acting and speaking at cross purposes. This is presented most starkly in the S&M relationship between Sean and Erin described in the story “An Otherworld.” A caning, Erin tries to explain, should hurt, but not really hurt. Like a lot of things Erin says, this leaves Sean puzzled. When Erin talks about her orgasms he understands that she isn’t being literal, but can’t figure out if he is being complimented or if he is missing her point entirely. This same failure to communicate also characterizes the up-and-down, over-self-analyzed partnership of Kim and Hart in the story “Body Condom” (the title itself introducing the theme of barren separateness and isolation represented in the story by a wetsuit), and the spectacular mutual incomprehension that marks the conclusion of “Dogs In Clothes.” Marconi’s wireless in the story of that name is another symbol: “A scribble of potential – connection unconnected.” Even something as simple as the flag on a mailbox (in the story “Hellgoing”) may be a faulty signifier and not mean what it should. “You could never trust the flag.”
In fact, there’s not much you can trust in these stories: lovers, family, and even one’s own feelings (which often shock us with a physical abruptness) can ambush and betray. A sharp, insightful writer with a tight, jamming style that makes use of fast narrative cuts, Coady deliberately leaves the human scribble tangled. This isn’t out of a desire to play coy but is rather an admission that problems involving relationships don’t have easy resolutions, or at least ones that can be clearly expressed. We may judge others harshly, as Cal judges Rain in “The Natural Elements,” but at the end of that story Cal is left with the suspicion that even if directly confronted Rain might have no idea what he is talking about. We can’t get through to one another. And yet some judgement is still necessary.
Misreadings, miscommunications and disconnections lead to moments of awkwardness and revelation, and to her credit Coady makes us feel every bit of her characters’ confusion and discomfort in a collection as difficult as it is insightful and rewarding.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2013.