The Antagonist by Lynn Coady (2011) House of Anansi Press (2011) 337 pp
Tonight the 2011 Giller Prize will be announced. You already know that we on the Shadow Jury already picked David Bezmozgis’s The Free World (my review here), but it wasn’t the easiest choice to make. I liked five books on the shortlist, four of them very much indeed, including this one, The Antagonist, which is my sixth and final review of this year’s shortlist.
First off, I really enjoyed the basic form of this novel. It is a classic epistolary framework, only here the principal character is writing angry emails to an old acquaintance (perhaps too much of a stretch to call him an old friend, though at one time, yes, they were friends). I realize that this may seem gimmicky, but Coady, who is a completely new name to me, pulls it off and then some. Here the form really does suit the story.
Our epistolarian (I can’t call him the protagonist since he is, by way of the title, the antagonist) is Gordan Rankin, who grew up with everyone calling him “Rank.” It was such a familiar appellation that it wasn’t until much later in his life that he recognized the unpleasant association. Since there is no omniscient narrator, we know nothing about Rank before he begins his first email to Adam, a college friend (Rank is now around forty):
There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous [. . .]
It turns out that Rank and Adam have recently been in touch briefly because Adam has published a book. Rank, putting on a mask, said he was excited to read it and was, in fact, hoping Adam might help him with a bit of writing he was going to do. Adam said sure, and then must have been surprised at the way the above email began. The picture Rank is referring to is the author’s photo on the book, the book Rank had already read and was infuriated by.
Coady let’s Rank riff on about Adam’s weight gain. Sure, Rank is showing his anger, and we know he is angry about the contents of the book, but he is having a hard time articulating the source of that anger. I liked imagining the growing chill Adam must have felt as the first email got more and more menacing, especially here:
I had to stop for a while. I got a bit worked up after writing that and went off to drink and watch a little TV and now I am drunk. I just realized I can write you however I want — drunk or sober — and there’s nothing you can do about it. Isn’t this great.
Adam is, understandably, afraid of what Rank might do. We learn about that fear through little clues in Rank’s emails, including this opening from the second one: “Do what you want. Keep as much of a “paper trail” as you want, I haven’t made any threats.” Adam has no idea where Rank is these days, and as Rank tells his story — he’s setting the record straight that Adam perverted in his novel — we understand a bit why Adam might fear Rank.
Rank is and always has been a large man. In college he played hockey, even had a scholarships — his sole job was to go out and be brutal.
That had been his role for some time. Rank’s father, also Gordan Rankin, only he went by “Gord,” was a small man who, one unfortunate day in 1981, chose to open an Icy Dream franchise instead of a Java Joe’s. After all, the town of 7,500 would never buy into that coffee fad (Rank now, the summer of 2009, looks around and sees six Java Joe’s around his father’s Icy Dream — KFC remarks on how well Coady portrays this transformation in his review (here)). Rank, of course, worked at his father’s Icy Dream, but his main job was to keep it clean of miscreants. If a particularly unseemly crowd of juveniles entered, Rank was to ask them forcefully to leave. His father loved to watch his son throw around his weight; it helped him feel as if he had some power.
Naturally, this leads to several unfortunate incidents, and Rank is well on track to becoming a first-rate loser. Which is all people really expect from him anyway.
At college, Rank meets Adam and a few other rather average, unathletic boys, who were as different from his father as he could find. The stories, particularly the one Rank doesn’t divulge for a long time about the death of his mother, are the ones Rank feels Adam has exploited. Worse, he let everything go the predictable way and in the process made it all false. The emails, principally angry at first, eventually turn into a retelling, a revision of Adam’s false novel.
While we on the Shadow Giller didn’t select The Antagonist, there were times after I finished it that I almost put it in my first-place slot. I was captured by Rank’s voice, which is brutal and vulnerable, and often funny. In the end I opted for a book that I think had more complexities of character, though I wouldn’t be disappointed if Coady pulled an upset and won the prize tonight.