In 2011, Lynn Coady’s novel The Antagonist was shortlisted for the Giller Prize (my thoughts here), and it was one of my favorites of that year. Looking back on my post, I see I almost had it in my first-place spot. I was excited, then, to see that she made the shortlist again this year with a collection of short stories, Hellgoing (2013). This is my second book of this year’s shortlist, and though I liked it, there’s something vague in my response. I’m hoping it isn’t in my top spot for this year’s prize.
Hellgoing is comprised of nine energetic stories. I say energetic because Coady employs a kind of hip, sardonic voice in most of the stories that really makes them hum along. The characters rarely want to take things seriously — even serious things.
For example, in the title story, Theresa, a forty-four-year-old mother is visiting friends, telling them about how her father had recently said she was fat. Theresa sees this — and Coady makes this explicit — as the punchline to a joke.
She didn’t tell her friends about anything else — the climax of the story had been told: Put on a few pounds, didn’t ya? Ba dum bump. Punchline!
She’s venting to her friends but telling them in such a way that it comes off as slightly humorous. Of course, she’s deeply offended by what her father said. Of course, it’s easier to make him look ridiculous rather than deal with her dire relationship with the man.
This tone works well in “Hellgoing,” where Theresa is also trying to deal with her brother, a brother who always used to be a kind of slacker enemy but who now seems to have everything together and under complete control. Her brother has even managed to tame their father in some ways. Theresa doesn’t tell her friends about her brother, nor does she get into what’s really bothering her: the fact that her own life feels so out of control.
“Hellgoing” is a good story, one of the strongest of the bunch, because the tone is the story. There’s not a lot, after all, to the concept. However, in several of the other stories it felt like Coady herself was being flippant. The tone didn’t leaven a serious story as much as render it completely weightless. I read the first story, “Wireless,” three times, starting over twice because I simply couldn’t remember what I’d already read. Each do-over I remembered I had read whatever it was I was reading, but it just as quickly slipped away again. Nothing was landing because the tone was so light, and so abstract. Consider the first sentence:
Jane salutes you from an age where to be an aficionado is to find yourself foolishly situated in the world.
We then go through a whole paragraph about people’s random obsessions with things most people would consider pointless. It’s not a bad idea, and for some the paragraph may work. For me, it was a lot of nothing, cleverly conveyed. And I just couldn’t keep the stuff in my head.
That was my experience with many of the stories. They were fun but not interesting; clever but not witty. They dealt with serious matters, but those serious matters actually felt tacked on.
This wasn’t the case with my favorite story in the collection, though. “Take This and Eat It” (not the best title, considering what I’ve just written) has another disenchanted, flippant narrator, only this time it’s Sister Anita, a nun working at a hospital. Sister Anita goes around the hospital saying it like it is. She gives one patient, Sylvia, a hard time for smoking.
“Now, Sylvia,” I tell her sometimes. “There’s a girl down the hall who won’t take a bite, she’s starving herself. Killing herself deliberately.”
“Well, the foolish thing.”
“Yes, but will you look who’s talking?”
But I only say that sort of thing when Sylvia’s going on and on about her cigarettes.
“Why don’t you just ask me to bring you a gun?” I’ll tell her.
“One of these days I might,” she’s answered once or twice.
Sister Anita, like Theresa in “Hellgoing,” talks about serious things in a matter-of-fact manner that, nevertheless, comes off as flippant. It worked well again here, though, because Sister Anita is deeply disenchanted. The tone helps. However, here the tone is not the story. Sister Anita is forced to reckon with herself due to her own encounter with that girl down the hall who won’t take a bite: Catherine. Catherine is a fourteen-year-old patient who, for religious reasons, refuses to eat. The doctors enlist Sister Anita, hoping Sister Anita can explain that one can be religious and eat. Sister Anita does not like working for the doctors.
In particular, Sister Anita does not like working for — or, the appearance of working for — a female doctor named Hilary.
“I’d be happy to talk to her,” I say. “But I thought that was your job.”
“I thought it was your job too — ” says Hilary.
We smile at each other. Two nice women.
It was passages like that that reminded me of Margaret Atwood, one of the judges of this year’s Giller Prize. In fact, I felt this entire story — it’s mixture of religion, feminism, and in-fighting — felt like something Atwood would write. And I liked it.
Still, don’t ask me much about “Wireless.” After three reads, I still don’t remember it well, and going through it again now I don’t care to review it. I feel this way about several of the other stories in this collection.