Gordon “Rank” Rankin Jr., the wronged, hulking hero of Lynn Coady’s new novel The Antagonist, spends long hours writing even longer emails to an erstwhile friend who’s taken details of Rank’s troubled life and used them as fodder for his novel. Rank’s fury is deeply felt, almost instinctive, and it’s also two-pronged: he’s furious about the parts his friend got right (thievery!), and he’s furious about the parts he got wrong (sloppiness!).
It’s a paradox, of course—one that the Cape Breton Island–raised, Edmonton-based Coady beautifully spins out over the course of the book (which has been received with unanimous fanfare, and was recently shortlisted for the Giller Prize). But it’s also one with which she has firsthand experience. In 2006, during a reading in New Brunswick for her last book, Mean Boy, Coady met some people who were less than thrilled about a character based on their late colleague, the poet John Thompson.
“Side by side, they were making these two very different complaints, as if it was the same complaint,” Coady says over a pot of tea in an Edmonton café. “One was, ‘This character is exactly like this person I knew.’ And the very next thing they would say was, ‘This character is nothing like the person I knew.’ ”
In the midst of her embarrassment—these criticisms were lodged during a public question-and-answer period—Coady realized this was a pretty good definition of fiction itself: “It’s exactly right, and it’s not accurate at the same time.”
Coady figured the only way she could really convince the complainants of this koanlike truth was to have them write their own books. So that’s what she has Rank do. Taken collectively, the emails in The Antagonist are his attempt, flailing and off-the-cuff as it is, to tell the story of his violence-laced youth the way it really happened. He quickly realizes the impossibility of bottling an entire life within the confines of a linear narrative. It’s a case of what we might call Tristram Shandy Syndrome; 10 pages into his first diatribe, Rank writes, “Oh Christ I read all this over and I see I haven’t even got past the fact that I was born.”
Much of the novel’s success has to do with Coady’s superb muckraking down in the depths of the male psyche. She chalks this up to decades spent watching the men around her perform a “dance of heteronormativity”, wherein complex emotions are all couched in nods and body language.
“It’s all coded,” Coady adds. “They’re signalling to each other when they’re feeling weak, or emotionally needy, without being explicit about it. Guys know how to read each other’s signals. They know how to telegraph love for one another, without throwing their arms around one another.” By contrast, she says, women are far less interesting.
The book also works by maintaining a slow, steady drip of information. For the first stretch, Rank comes off as the kind of single-minded goon who might actually show up at his friend’s bedside in the middle of the night. As the emails keep coming, however, Rank reveals himself as a tragic victim of familial circumstance: his father, Gord Sr., exploits his size and strength, even as a child, and his mother dies in a car accident when Rank is a teenager. Toward the end of the book, he reveals some of the mundane but touching details of his current life. Before you know it, Rank is as complex and finely wrought a character as you’ll come across all year.
The most obvious question still looms: has Coady stolen anything from real life for this book?
“One thing that I feel like I need to talk to my parents about is that I stole—I’m just going to say unabashedly—I stole a camping trip they went on,” she says. “It was just a blatant rip-off. I liked the story. They’re going to see it and say ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
And what will they think?
“Fortunately, they’re used to this kind of thing from me,” Coady says with a laugh. “I’ve tried to explain to them over the years, and they always go, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ I don’t know if they buy it, but they seem to have accepted it.”
House of Anansi, 352 pp, $32.95, hardcover
(interview originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, October 13, 2011)