>>Finally got around to it: October 2013
Here is what he’s doing. He’s inhaling, and then letting the smoke pour out as he sings. It cascades from his face and swirls heavenward, enveloping them both as he extends the cigarette to his wife. A more honest gesture, now, a gesture like the nurses when they feed her, only loving.
And then of course he takes a look around, a guilty boy. As he has probably been doing intermittently throughout this performance.
And if they think I am going to stand here denouncing this and that, they are not smart. If they think I’m going to slap my palm against the light switch and start hollering for doctors and nurses and the pope, they don’t have to concern themselves. If they suppose I could possibly bother with any such nonsense, let them turn around and get on with what they’re doing. Let them do as they please, the whole bunch of them. Eat and smoke and starve and stand on your head as far as I’m concerned. Live and die and do what you want all over the place. I won’t be the one to say a word.
Lynn Coady’s sixth book, coming only two years after her impressive, Giller-shortlisted novel The Antagonist, is a collection of nine caustic short stories detailing an assortment of broken, isolated characters—mostly women—undone by obsessions, miscommunications, and bottled-up resentment.
In “Wireless,” a self-styled alcohol aficionado works to find ways to justify her obsession to a maybe-more-than-a-one-night-stand who shares her addiction, but is seemingly less comfortable admitting to his weaknesses. The emotionally exhausted assistant of a writer on a media blitz in “Dogs in Clothes” is further worn down by frequent notifications from her brother regarding their father’s seemingly unsuccessful open-heart surgery. A pushover of a landlord in “The Natural Elements” dotes in a fatherly way over a tenant—a woman abandoned in an unfamiliar environment by her professor husband.
Intense psychological unrest is prevalent in most of the stories in this collection. In “Take This and Eat it,” a nun attempts to get through to an anorexic girl who is starving herself for God, treading a fine high wire between respecting the girl’s rights to religious freedom and watching, waiting to be convinced her religion is merely a mask for deeper emotional issues. The bride-to-be at the heart of “An Otherworld” has a lust for bondage and an obvious desire to self-punish as if undeserving of happiness or stability. A young woman travels with her boyfriend in “Body Condom” to visit with his father, who, in his drug-addled past, abused and abandoned his family; while the boyfriend’s personality is very much head-in-the-clouds—more likely as a survival mechanism than naivety—his girlfriend’s bitterness bubbles to the surface—bitterness not only about being in love, but about being in love with him. And in “Mr. Hope,” a peculiar friendship blooms over several years between a student and her principal as he tests her to be better than she is, better than the subpar selection of students he’s tired of seeing in school day in and day out.
The two strongest stories in this collection are the titular “Hellgoing” and “Clear Skies.” In the former, a brother and sister come to understand one another as adults, united against emotional parental abuse while also being forced to acknowledge that elements of their parents will always be with them, inside. In the latter, meanwhile, a writer goes to a retreat to discuss her work with her peers… who really aren’t her peers because of how she sees them, as inauthentic approximations of various writers’ stereotypes.
There’s an overarching frustrated, atheistic tone to the stories in Hellgoing—a rejection of the existence of a plan or purpose for any one of us beyond that which we make for ourselves. Collectively, these are lost protagonists who, despite their surface connections and careers, seem more often to skirt the edges of introversion and isolationism. While this harder edge is welcome, the abrasiveness is like flotsam floating to the surface; Coady’s stories are conceptually cutting, as are her characters, but it’s all show—there’s little to any of them beyond anger and discontentment outwardly cast.
Though there are no quote-unquote bad stories in Hellgoing, neither is there any one in particular that stands out in my memory. Coady’s moment-to-moment writing is as good as ever, but unlike the pained and instantly captivating diamond in the rough at the heart of her previous novel, the characters in Hellgoing feel like basic ideas and emotions tied loosely together, and not realized people.