The Antagonist by Lynn Coady
By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis
Author: Lynn Coady
Format: Hardcover, 337 pages
Publisher: House of Anansi Books
Pub Date: September 3, 2011
Giller Prize Short List Finalist
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady was a short listed book finalist for the prestigious Canadian Giller Prize for 2011. So, when I opened the book, I approached it as such and expected a literary eloquence in narrative, details of landscape in setting, and a myriad of complex characters in an elaborate plot that speaks to a high order of the privileged few about its philosophy on the potential downfall or evolution of society. (Insert breath, here.) Yeah, one of those books. A book that is heavier than my hand in writing this first paragraph. Because heavy-handed is not a place a writer wants to be, nor does a reader. I know. I’m both.
So, it was much to my relief that this book surprised me (but, only after the fact, because really, I don’t like it when an author initially says in his or her writing, “Ha! And you expected Northrop Frye!”). So much for what I know.
Northrop Frye. (c) Photo by Andrew Danson
It’s said you “shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” but the lesson learned here, too, is you shouldn’t judge a book by its seal of award nominations – long-listed or short.
That’s not to say it was a poorly written novel, unworthy of its shortlist Giller acclaim. It’s not. It’s a deceptively simple narrative, a confessional collection of email written by the main character, Gord Rankin Jr., also known as Rank, in response to his best friend’s (Adam) book publication in which he discovers he is the star and central character.
But, star is too kind a word for the “antagonistic” email-writer who resents being fictionalized in a novel without first granting his explicit permission, if not disclosing the full “truth” behind its story – his story. Thus, an onslaught of daily conversational rants becomes the collective essence of the book, which through its dialogue reveals the true nature of its hulking giant and his overly scrutinized temperament.
Gord Rankin Jr., as Rank, a name he imposed on himself, has but, one main identity flaw: he is big. Big for his age, bigger than his friends, and feels the pressure associated with his bulk as a weight to act out a premature manhood that he has not yet emotionally identified with, and yet has unexpectedly manifested itself into his overgrown body.
Most pre-pubescent boys wish for such a growth spurt, rushing forward into their futures searching for elusive manhood explained to them as something innately measured by the size of their biceps, the abundance of their hair growth, their sexual promiscuity and prowess with women, and the bravado of adrenalin and aggression readily exhibited in sport. At least this is the stereotype.
And Rank is the victim of such stereotypical branding. Unfortunately, not only is he unprepared to fully understand the magnification of his own strength, this stereotype, which trapped him as a child has also led him to its full supplication. He was simply too big in his own mind and others around him that he succumbed to living out a lifestyle that pegged him as an uneducated, muscle-bound brute.
But, it wasn’t just size that he battled against in his upbringing. It was his own animosity towards his brash-mouthed, brazen father and the loss of his idyllic, “saintly” mother. This kind of burden coupled with a readily instilled, hot temper coupled with physical dominance is bound to erupt in some form of violence whether it be unintended or not. And the outcome can be traumatic.
And so, it is through this therapeutic email writing that Rank slowly discloses to the reader as well as to his friend, Adam, his version of the story that has been, according to Rank, superficially immortalized in a book.
Subordinate characters in the story include a quick-tempered father, a drug-pushing thug, a judgemental constable, a college fraternity of friends, an alcoholic bouncer, a Born-Again girlfriend, and an empathetic counsellor and hockey coach—all catalysts to a larger story to the bulk of Rank, himself.
It is an easy, quick read. At times the writing is self-absorbed, but then how can it not be, considering the email writing is one-sided and self-reflective? This book is as much an internal dialogue as it is long-winded. It has to be. It’s email—in all its technological-acronym-glory of OMGs and modern, street-dialogue including the word, fuck. But, there is brash wit and a hidden intelligence in Rank’s dialogue that lets you know that he’s no “dumb jock.”
The friendship between Adam and himself, though not fully articulated, is one of polar opposites, where Rank, the broad-shouldered, meat-eating, alcohol-partying guy finds a confidence in the quiet assurance and watchfulness of his academic peer and counterpart, Adam.
It’s a story about strength and the lack of it; about family and friendship; and the power of the fist as much as it is about men and the fragility of their egos—as well as their hearts.
Now, go and punch something for not buying this book sooner.
Better to just go and read this book instead.
A special thank you to the House of Anansi for providing me with a media copy of the book in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.