Review: the Antagonist by Lynn Coady

The Antagonist
Lynn Coady
House of Anansi Press

In Lynn Coady’s fourth novel, The Antagonist, we meet 40-year-old Gordon Rankin, or Rank as he is known. In a chance encounter with Kyle, a buddy from 20 years past, Rank learns that their mutual friend, Adam, has published a book. Upon reading it, Rank discovers a character that bears a striking resemblance to himself, and the portrayal is none too flattering. In his own defense, Rank starts a long series of emails to Adam to express his indignation. Rank’s humorous and touching epistolary journey allows him to ramble, rant and reminisce, eventually leading him to confront his own demons.

A hulking man of 6’4,” Rank has had the misfortune of being cast into the role of enforcer by his friends, hockey coaches and short angry father. However, his outward appearance is very much at odds with his sensitive, thoughtful and articulate inner self. Rank also has been subjected to verbal abuse by his father, Gord Senior. This abuse has created a discernible anger in Rank, which in certain situations makes his friends and onlookers nervous. What’s more, Gord Senior picks fights for his son to settle on his behalf. Rank is able to sidestep most of his father’s battles, except for one, and his exceptional strength lands him in a youth detention centre.

This pivotal event also coincides with an even greater tragedy, the death of his mother. In his young mind, the two events are inextricably linked, an unbearable burden for a young man still in his teens. On an alcohol-soaked evening with his friends at university, Rank finds himself embroiled in eerily similar circumstances, but instead of waiting to see the outcome, he assumes the worst and runs—for years.

Every once in a while a book comes along that challenges our own preconceived notions of the world. In my own version and that of many others, big white men are rarely considered an underprivileged group. But Coady challenges this by making us look at Rank, the individual, a person that most of us would dismiss as “having it all.” The Antagonist could have not have come at a better time. In our fast, media-saturated world, this novel gives the reader the refreshing and increasingly rare opportunity to take a closer, more compassionate look at someone wrongly judged by his outer shell.

Through the consistency of her character’s voice, Coady is overwhelmingly successful at showing us the inner Rank. He will invariably remind readers of someone they knew growing up or met at a university party, drinking a purple Jesus or two. The author appears to have spent a lot of time with male friends or brothers, as the banter about sex, rock trivia and parties is accurate and believable. It almost felt like Coady used the literary equivalent of method acting to get Rank’s thoughts and remarks just right.

Equally enjoyable was the revival of the epistolary novel in the age of instant communication, when no one reads more than a few sentences at a time. The use of email and Facebook as the communication tools of choice in Rank’s long, sometimes epic messages shows that his journey is meant to be more cathartic than informative, but it also demonstrates that genuine communication takes just as long as it did 30 years ago.

After finishing The Antagonist, I wondered about my own prejudices and whether I would have picked up this book if it had been written by a man. The answer is no. However, I would pick up a book written by a man who, as convincingly as Coady, perfects the voice of a bright, beautiful woman, or the female version of Rank, the woman whom we think has it all. Kudos to Lynn Coady for taking a risk on a male protagonist and getting the voice pitch perfect.

This review has been cross-posted at Rover: Montreal Arts Uncovered.

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