Unwritten: The Antagonist

Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist
House of Anansi, 2011

The protagonist in The Antagonist is Rank.

Actually, Gordon Rankin.

But he’s insisted, since he was twelve years old, that his friends call him Rank.

Now it occurs to him that he’s been instructing people to call him stinky, but that’s not how he thought of it to begin with.

Which is really the point of The Antagonist: how differently we see things years later, how we make sense of things (and don’t), the 180’s that we are capable of executing.

Rank’s father is impatient with his son’s references to the past: “What’s past is past. When are you gonna put all that shit behind you?”

But Rank is still living all that shit, has it laid out in front of him in a set of emails he is writing.

He sends these letters to Adam, whom he has known since his student-days, because Adam has just published a novel with events in it that mirror events in Rank’s life.

Rank feels fundamentally betrayed. And this is heaped upon a lifetime of having felt misjudged and misunderstood.

For most of his life, Rank thinks that others have taken one look at him — the over-sized athlete and enforcer — and have believed that they know everything about him based on a glance.

In the process of unravelling, after Adam’s book has been published, he examines the point at which his image eclipsed his identity, when he was barely a teenager.

“If being a grown man endows you with instantaneous authority, what do you suppose a body like mine was telling people?
It told people, I think: Make way.
It told people: Trust me.
Some people it told: I am your hero! |
It told women: I’ll take care of it.
Men it asked: How could I have anything but contempt for you?
It said: Prove it. Prove to me how big you are.”

As Rank reconsiders his life, he confronts the gaps that exist between these assumptions and the reality of many events and relationships in his past.

Of course, throughout the novel, the reader is aware that Rank is writing these letters. And Rank himself is aware of the importance of a storyteller’s voice.

When he searches for the truth of the story that surrounds his parents’ courtship, he remains unsure. “Like I said, I don’t know. It’s not a story Gord ever told. It was a story Sylvie told.”

The reader, too, is unsure of many things in this story that Rank is telling, particularly when his anger takes the narrative off-track. He’s equally furious at Adam’s words (in the novel, in the cursory responses issued) as he is at the sustained silence that follows.

“What’s the deal? I thought we had a back and forth going on and now you leave me hanging in the breeze. WTF, as the kids say.”

But back-and-forth in 2009 is not what it was, when Rank and Adam were coming-of-age, when letters travelled through the national postal system.

Reaching out no longer takes a week or two with text on paper, but happens with a few clicks of a mouse on a social networking site. This alters expectations, creates unexpected intimacies, messes with boundaries, cultivates illusions, breeds misunderstandings.

“I’m baring my soul for you here, yanking off one strip of flesh after another and feeding it into cyberspace. This is supposed to be a dialogue…not a one-man show. A meeting of the minds so to minds so to speak.”

That’s Rank’s perception. He is keenly aware of his vulnerability. (Which, of course, is at odds with the way that others have perceived — and do perceive — him. There’s that gap again.)

Not only in the present, for he believes that the fictional version of him in Adam’s book is immediately recognizable to anybody who has known Rank.

But also in the past, for the events which led to his disclosing personal information to Adam in the first place. (There is a reason why the reader does not understand this for a good long while.)

Immersed in his perspective, the reader can understand Rank’s desire for a response. But the reader has an independent set of questions too.

Is this narrative really a one-man show? Could there ever be a meeting of the minds here? Is the idea of a dialogue even possible under the circumstances?

Clearly Adam is not responding. But it’s another kind of dialogue that makes Lynn Coady’s novel so fasincating, that between Rank’s views of his own self, between Rank’s idea of himself as the antagonist and the possibility that he could inhabit the role of the protagonist.

“It was like, as long as all these people existed only in my memory, it was just a short step to the belief that in fact I’d mistaken memory for imagination and, in fact, these people were actually figments – just like the events that they participated in – part of a long, dark dream that only you and I shared, Adam.”

Obviously what Adam and Rank shared is at the heart of this novel, but what constitutes a dialogue is given a good shake in The Antagonist.

And it turns out that the un-said cuts a profile that is larger than that which appeared in the mirror.

Giller-bility

Richard B. Wright wrote letters that the 2001 Giller jury loved, but epistolary novels are in the minority on these lists. Of course the whole party started with A Book of Secrets — and Gordon Rankin definitely has some secrets — but Lynn Coady’s novel may be too edgy to charm the panel.

Inner workings

Letters (e-mails) written — between May 23rd and August 17th in 2009 — to a single recipient. Seemingly spontaneous and chaotic — as the sender plans to write of one thing but gets distracted — but, in fact, a skillful and gradual reveal of what the sender cannot accept for some time.

Language

Strictly functional usually, but Trisha has a “face-eating Marie Osmond smile”; the sun is “smeared like a broken egg yolk along the horizon”; “And I knew the world had flipped itself over like an all-beef patty, done on one-side, when I heard the sound…” (revealing the sound = spoilery)

Locale

Deliberately ambiguous. These letters could be sent from anywhere. The narrative plays with the idea that we are who we are…except when we are who we aren’t, except when we pretend to be someone else, except when we are the person others see. It all exists somewhere.

Engagement

It’s the recipient, not the reader, that Rank is directly addressing as ‘you’. And that recipient has knowledge of Rank’s life that the reader does not. The reader is literally reading someone else’s mail, so it takes time to get some bearings. But then it’s addictive, like reading someone else’s diary.

Readers wanted: 

Reading over the shoulder of the person next to you gives you a small thrill. Okay, maybe a big thrill. You’ve been misunderstood and indignant about it. You found the game Mousetrap fascinating and frustrating. You enjoy reading between the lines.

Companion Read:
M.J. Hyland’s This is How (2009)
Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio (2013)
Craig Davidson’s Cataract City (2013)

PS This was really the perfect fit for my current Friday Fugue:  epistolary works. It just happens to fit my Giller longlist-reading project as well. Doncha love it when literary desires intersect like that?

2014-03-15T16:14:33+00:00

One Comment

  1. Jules November 27, 2011 at 11:29 am - Reply

    You made some interesting points, and seemed to be able to connect to the book on a deeper level than I did. Also congrats on finishing the Giller longlist.

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