Book review: Lynn Coady’s ‘The Antagonist’

January 22, 2013

Dear Lynn Coady,

I know, I know — those reviews written in the style of the book being reviewed are always an embarrassment, a too-cute indulgence that some friend or editor should have snuffed out before they saw the light of publication. Maybe you saw just two months ago when a certain New York Times critic tried to write a poem about Calvin Trillin’s poems. (No, iamb not kidding!) But your strange epistolary novel, “The Antagonist,” sent me reeling, and I can’t help reaching out to you privately. Besides, when a person — a grown man! — summarizes the plots of books for a living, the thirst for novelty can sometimes drive him to desperate acts.

Don’t worry: Living in Alberta, you’re too far away for me to knock on your door. But you might want to leave that Canada stuff off your bio anyway. Sure, “The Antagonist” was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, but down here we care about that as much as we care about the metric system. Forget your previous four books, too, and all the accolades they’ve received up there. Try passing yourself off as a debut author — we love debut authors!

And, as I said, I love your new book, with its unsettling mixture of comedy and pathos. You can be an incredibly funny writer, sarcastic and profane, right up till the moment when the tragedy below the surface suddenly erupts.

Still, what a tough sell: an “e-pistolary” novel, a whole book composed of e-mail messages from an angry, guilt-ridden man who’s just discovered that an old college friend has written a novel about him. Any number of things could have soured this high-concept project and made it sound cute ;-) or like a tedious postmodern stunt. But you’d already written a sharply funny novel about a poetry class, so I was willing to give “The Antagonist” a try.


”The Antagonist” by Lynn Coady. (Knopf/Knopf)

How flexible the e-mail form becomes in the hands of your giant narrator. A once-promising hockey star, Rank, as you call him, glides across these pages with remarkable power and grace, turning on a blade from rant to reflection as he crashes through the story of his adolescence, when he did more damage than he can ever forgive himself for.

You’ve created male narrators before, of course, but Rank is a fantastically odd and believable character, a man cursed by a cruel combination of sensitivity and physical brutality. And you’ve captured his relationship with his parents with such raw pain: the way he’s haunted by the loss of his mother and provoked by the adoration of his obnoxious, small-minded father.

What really infuriates him now, though, is that his old college buddy, a quiet, judgmental geek, would dredge up his past, his most intimate, unguarded conversations, and use them to create “a dangerously unbalanced thug with an innate criminality.” That’s a great moment when Rank practically howls, “You have taken something that was mine and made it yours, without even asking.” I could feel his drunken rage as he screams into the computer: “I gave it to you, these intermittent chunks, I pulled off hank after bloody hank of flesh and just handed them over and you were so coy, you averted your eyes and pretended to be embarrassed like the rest of them when really you were squirreling away all those hanks and secretly stitching them together and building Frankenstein’s monster.”

I have to say, at first I was conscious of how hard you were working within this epistolary structure to get Rank to switch from first-person diatribe to third-person narrator, but soon I didn’t even notice your formal dexterity, and I was just carried along by the force of Rank’s flailing search for retribution, for explanation, for absolution. For three months in 2009, he pounds out this extended e-mail rebuttal to his friend’s novel, goading him to respond, threatening him, daring him to call the police. And, in the process, he retells the tumultuous tale of his accidentally violent life and discovers just how problematic it is to replace Adam’s half-truths and oversights with “the glorified, terrible, complex, astonishing truth of Reality.” How exactly can he correct the record without suffering again the exposure he finds so abhorrent? (You don’t have to answer that — I’m just being rhetorical.)

It’s an extraordinarily clever and sympathetic exploration of the cross-currents of male friendship, the intense relationships we make and abandon in school. How ill-fitting those intimacies feel years later whenever a college reunion or some chance encounter forces us to try them on again. Who owns our adolescent memories, our forgotten brutalities, our drunken confessions of affection and dread? (By the way, there are three Lynn Coadys on Facebook, but you were easy to find.)

I was curious to read in an interview that you had a somewhat similar experience, when an old friend confronted you about using the details of her life in your first book. She won’t see herself again in “The Antagonist,” but your ability to transform the kernel of that young woman’s ire into the fictional life of this once-reckless and now thoughtful 40-year-old man is absolutely brilliant.

What particularly held me, though, and made me parcel out the last few pages is the vein of spiritual angst that runs through your whole novel. Do you know John Updike’s “In the Beauty of the Lilies” from 1996? It’s one of his most overtly religious books, although it sometimes has trouble transcending its clinical tone. In the first chapter, the Rev. Clarence Wilmot suddenly feels “the last particles of his faith leave him . . . a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” No doubt there are people who lose their faith like that, in a moment, the way Mary McCarthy describes hers dropping away during a bit of playacting at Catholic school. But in “The Antagonist,” you give such a full sense of the stickiness of faith, the frustration and terror felt by those of us who can’t shake the presence of something beyond — God or the gods. Rank may enjoy mocking those crude, histrionic preachers on TV, but he still lusts after the spiritual certainty that such orthodoxy promises. “We want to be swept up,” as Rank says. “We want it to remove every last doubt we ever entertained about our randomness as creatures of the earth. . . . We want to be as little children and believe.”

Gradually, I came to see that Rank’s e-mails to his old friend, this vampiric author who refuses to answer his grievances, are directed to a larger, even more implacable creator. In his own roughly poetic way, Rank reminds me of Emily Dickinson maligning God by noting that “He fumbles at your Soul.” You’ll think I’m being too grandiose, but poor Rank reminded me of a hulking, hockey-playing Job, railing at the whirlwind. In Rank’s case, the whirlwind never answers, but his anger gradually crystallizes into the kind of devastating knowledge he needs, and I need. It’s all tremendously, surprisingly moving.

I just wanted you to know that.

Your grateful reader,

Ron

Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.

THE ANTAGONIST

By Lynn Coady

Knopf. 285 pp. $25.95

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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