Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind
Doubleday-Random House, 2000

Worthlessness. Disappointment. Boredom. Hellishness. Despair. The eleven stories in Lynn Coady’s debut collection (which followed her astonishingly successful debut novel Strange Heaven) are not for the faint-of-heart.

Worthlessness, from “A Great Man’s Passing”
“It was her fault because she had done nothing the right way. She had done nothing in her life to make any of it worthwhile.”

Disappointment, from “In Disguise as the Sky”
“The less intimate you are, the less it bothers you. That’s what cities are for. That’s what I thought cities were supposed to be for. But the city is becoming a disappointment to me.”

Boredom, from “The Ice-Cream Man”
“You have to smile at this guy because it’s nice to talk to someone who says and does exactly the same thing he’s been doing and saying ever since you’ve known him, without exception.”

Hellishness, from “Look, and Pass On”
“He pictured her mind at work, trying to reconcile the image of Alan taking a leisurely stroll through the pit — Dante under his arm to be consulted every now and again for directions — with what had been seared into her brain since childhood. That hell is not for tourists.”

Despair, from “Nice Place to Visit”
“It never occurred to them to do anything with their money except drink, there was so little of it.”

You won’t miss these things. You can’t miss them. But they’re not as simple as they seem. Worthlessness slips into striving. Boredom translates into comfort. Hellishness becomes familiar.

And, besides all of that, there are also some moments of wonder. One of these comes right at the end of the title story, which opens the collection, “Play the Monster Blind”. (So, you see, you don’t have to read far for a glimpse of something amazing.)

For me, the characters in this story leap off the page. It’s almost overwhelming. With the exception of her boyfriend, John, the reader meets the characters in this one right along with Bethany. She has gone to visit John’s family and we are introduced to them —  his father and mother, his sister (Ann), his brother (Hugh), and Uncle Lachie — just as she is introduced, and we get acquainted — er, adjust — just as she does.

And, yes, I remembered their names without prompting: they are a memorable bunch. What is most memorable, however, is the change that Bethany herself experiences throughout this story.

This is the part that I found so disturbing — it’s actually left a taste in my mouth, and it’s not exactly a good taste, which was true of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake as well — but, paradoxically, for Bethany, the story ends with a burst of pleasure.

Obliquely contrasting emotions and experiences characterize many of the stories in this collection: euphoria and desperation, celebration and regret, stagnancy and propulsion, triumph and loneliness. It’s an unsettling but also powerful device; it’s the kind of thing that makes for a good discussion between bookish friends.

For me, the bulk of that discussion would centre around the stories’ endings; often the final scenes are particularly dynamic. It’s not so much that they offer a new piece of information that you might want to discuss, but that they reveal that you didn’t have all the information that you thought you had to start with, that you hadn’t even quite understood what was missing.

Sometimes I think that’s because the characters therein are still in the process of becoming. As a character, Bess is particularly intriguing, and she actually appears in two stories: “A Great Man’s Passing” and “Nice Place to Visit”. (Two of the other stories are tightly linked as well: “Big Dog Rage” and “Run Every Day”.)

Just a few paragraphs ago, I was pulling quotes about worthlessness and despair from those stories, but they’re also about endurance and determination. There is that dichotomy of emotions and experience again.

And here, once more: “I threw crab apples at a boy one time until he threw up. I felt horrible afterwards. But I didn’t feel horrible when I was doing it.”

Is that what it comes down to? In some ways, yes, the stories in this collection are about horrible things, things we recognize as horrible immediately and things that are recognized later to have been horrible. The fruit-thrower is not a horrible person, but she did something horrible. And later she felt horrible about it, though at the time, she didn’t feel horrible.

But that’s not what makes the stories so disturbing. What makes the stories so disturbing is that any one of us could have been that person throwing fruit. Which is what sometimes makes you feel horrible when you’re reading these stories. Which is also what makes the stories so good. Which is also why I now want to start at the beginning of my Lynn Coady shelf and read straight through, book by book.

Companion Reads: Caroline Adderson’s Bad Imaginings (1993); Alissa York’s Any Given Power (1999).

My Canada Reads Indie Responses (please see Pickle Me This for the event’s details):
Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind (JAN28 above) (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Stacey May Fowles’ Be Good JAN30 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Mavis Gallant’s Home Truths FEB1 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water FEB3 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Darren Greer’s Still Life with June FEB5 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)