Review: The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

>>Published: September 2011

It’s like seeing pictures of yourself that you didn’t even know anyone was taking—candid camera—a whole album of worst-moment closed-circuit stills. There you are taking a dump. There you are saying precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time. There you are stepping on someone’s puppy while scratching your crotch.

***

Do you remember that asshole from high school? The one who strutted tall in the halls, walking with a such a wide swagger you’d think he had a dick the size of a Volkswagen between his thighs? The guy no one wanted to fuck with because, rumour has it, his fists could crush granite and knock someone’s mind all the way from reason back to stone tools and the missing link?

Gordon Rankin, protagonist of The Antagonist, is that guy. Only, he’s also not.

You might think, while crossing the street to avoid the six-foot-whatever monstrosity of genetics wearing an Icy Dream uniform, that Gordon Rankin—Rank to his friends, family, and faithful fearful—is a walking signpost for the juvenile detention system, but that would be only half the story. Less than that—Rank’s mistakes have been minor in number. It’s his size, his scope, and his associated abilities that have given his few infractions an imbalanced gravity.

The Antagonist details Rank’s existence through a series of emails written to a former friend-turned-author named Adam Grix between May and August of 2009. Through a chance encounter with a university friend-upon-a-time, Rank learns that Adam, to whom Rank had confided some of his darkest secrets twenty years prior, has written a book not so loosely based on the half-drawn image of Rank that Adam assumed he had known. Rank, understandably hurt and pissed off, emails Adam to set things right and tear apart his novel as the surface work of tabloid fiction it is. Along the way we meet Rank’s parents—the angelic Sylvie, and the bottom-feeding vein-buster Gordon Sr.—past loves, friends, and tragedies both owned and inflicted upon our unexpected hero. It isn’t long before a book-within-a-book meta-narrative evolves; Rank’s emails quickly transition from defensive posturing to a volatile form of self-therapy, then into a non-linear autobiography.

The non-linear nature of the book is its largest asset, but also an early liability. The Antagonist gets off to a bit of a rocky start. Written as if from Rank’s hand, the early image we’re given of our rock-solid goliath is hardly that of a deep thinker. Yet Coady’s writing is smooth, deliciously sarcastic, and vivid. At first, I struggled with The Antagonist in much the same way that I did with Emma Donoghue’s Room, published in late 2010. In Room, the author structured the book entirely from the perspective of a five-year-old boy. The problem, however, was that the voice of her protagonist was never convincing—it felt less like that of a five-year-old boy, and more like a middle-aged woman writing from what she imagined a five-year-old boy might sound like. The unfortunate result was a book that lacked sincerity and severity. But unlike the child protagonist of Room, Rank’s voice is given its proper evolution through the narrative. Though hidden from the reader at first, Rank’s intelligence and verbosity are given their dues, and the non-linear structure of the story, pinpointing the necessary dots on the line of Rank’s evolution, provides added weight to the opening chapters after the fact.

For all of Adam’s creative backstabbing and his misrepresentation of his former university friend, Rank still must come to terms with the three things that combined to set his feet marching down the wrong path in life: his size, his strength, and the abusive, quick-to-assume-the-worst-about-everyone nature of his father, Gordon Sr. Through the one-sided chain of emails that, in a roundabout way detail every last crucial detail as to the why and how of Rank, we see accusation, adolescent upheaval, and the acceptance of adulthood through the acknowledgement of past transgressions. Rank’s voyage of self-discovery begins in a place of anger, resentment, and betrayal—Adam’s betrayal offering a window into a lifetime’s worth of memories of being used and having the unwanted role of childhood enforcer thrust upon our sorry tour guide—and ends in catharsis that, through Coady’s graceful plotting and subtle character growth, feels entirely welcome and earned.

We cheer for Rank because we recognize in him the antagonists of our youth, and we hope the same soulfulness resides within them—hope for the species, and all that. The Antagonist defies early expectations. Lynn Coady’s newest is an intriguing, rewarding book, and once started I found it difficult to stop reading.

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