Saturday, November 5, 2011

Review: The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

It’s probably no accident that the cover of Lynn Coady’s new novel, The Antagonist, looks a bit like an incomplete Facebook profile. The notion of an online persona looms large in this book about an erstwhile hockey enforcer named Gordon “Rank” Rankin Jr. who uses email to confront an old university chum named Adam after Adam has filched part of Rank’s life story in a novel he's published. Rank is at once a wholly realized character and an incomplete online presence, and it is a testament to Coady’s literary power that she can make this dichotomy come off not as a flaw in her novel but rather as its great strength, a big part of its raison d'être.

I’ve been a huge fan and advocate of Coady’s work since reading her first novel, Strange Heaven, more than 10 years ago. I can tell you without a gram of hyperbole that The Antagonist is her finest work to date by a good country mile – and that’s saying a lot, considering how brilliant her other books are. Indeed, allow me to borrow RR’s comment about short story collections and Alexander MacLeod’s Lift Lifting: if someone were to go about tailoring a novel for my exact and specific tastes, the end result would resemble something like The Antagonist.

The reasons for this are many. The book’s epistolary style, first and foremost, is inherently risky, and I love that Coady faces its challenges head on. She builds an entire world for us within the boundaries of email and then extends those boundaries with such skill that we hardly sense how effectively she’s suspending our disbelief. I also love that Rank doesn’t tell his story in chronological order but instead adheres to his tale’s own sense of arc, one that transcends chronology and mirrors the jumbled, back and forth way we often convey stories to each other.

I also love the way this book balances its humour (and there’s a lot of it – huge passages that left me laughing out loud and holding my sides) with its moments of sadness. Rank, so misjudged for his hulking, goonish aura, is acerbic when describing the trials he must endure. His father, Gordon Sr., hires him to work at his fast food joint, ostensibly to flip burgers in the kitchen but mostly to “bust punks’ skulls,” and the resulting scenes are hilarious. But there are moments in this book where Rank’s hurt – the damage he has caused to himself and others because of the prejudices over his size and strength – is so palpable that you’ll have to stop reading to take a breath. The scene where he injures an opponent on the ice and then literally vomits in guilt back in the locker room is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever read. It lends a sad and tender shading to this caustic, laugh-out loud tale.

As well, there are hundreds of little verisimilitudes scattered throughout The Antagonist that will cause fireworks of recognition to go off in your brain. This is especially true if you grew up in a small town in Canada, or attended a small liberal arts university, or been in a fight, or gone inside a club where middle-aged women are standing on the bar leading a sing-along and/or doing a half-hearted striptease. Coady captures it all, holds this entire world on her page at once, allowing you to lose yourself in a place that is so very familiar and yet so very surprising.

The Antagonist is up for this year’s Giller Prize, announced next week, and should Coady win it will give her some much overdue recognition. She is one of our finest novelists and someone whose work should be read over and over and over again.

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