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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