Sunday, 22 March 2015

The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

Let’s start with a bit of honesty here. I did not want to read this book. I remember hearing about it when it came out and heard that it was about hockey, and I was not the least bit interested. I put the book out of my mind immediately. But then (a little more honesty here) when Jian Ghomeshi put his piece on Facebook about being fired from the CBC (before we found out that he is a woman beating asshole) he mentioned that his sex life was no worse than the scenes in Lynn Coady’s Giller Prize winning novel (Full disclosure here – He was NOT referencing The Antagonist, but rather her novel of short stories Hellgoing – which looks awesome… but I still got that totally wrong). I admit, I was intrigued. Then a copy came into the library where I volunteer and so I picked it up. It was in pristine condition and $1.50; really how could I say no? Still, it sat on my shelf until a friend of mine told me that I needed to read it, and since I have never really seen her as a sports book fan I decided to give it a try. I was still pretty hesitant though.

I abhor sports memoirs, in all mediums. I am not sure why I detest them so much, but I really do. When I was in university I lived with my uncle and his 4 sons, who all played hockey; in fact, their entire lives revolved around hockey and sports in general. When they were little they would get up every morning at 6 am and stand at attention outside of my bedroom door, listening to O Canada (this is completely true. They had a jock jam’s cd with O Canada on it and they would listen to it before every game that they played). And then they would go crazy playing with their plastic mini sticks and yelling and hitting each other. It was chaos. I am pretty sure the tv in that house only had two channels; TSN and CBC, but only for Hockey Night in Canada. Except if there was a channel playing a sports movie; those got watched incessantly. I am pretty sure those boys (who are almost all grown now) can still site Remember the Titans and Miracle verbatim. Luckily I had my own tv, but I still saw Remember the Titans more times than I care to remember.

All that being said, The Antagonist is NOT a sports memoir; AND – it’s REALLY good. Other than the fact that the main character, Rank, played hockey as a kid, this book really has nothing to do with sports at all. Instead it is a deeply psychological look at someone who has been completely betrayed by someone they considered a friend, and how that betrayal then forces him to look at who he used to be and why he used to be like that. Honestly, I am not really sure how it ever got the ‘sports’ designation in the first place.

House of Anansi Press, June 2012
Gordon Rankin Jr (Rank) runs into an old friend one day, out of the blue. The two chat superficially for a few minutes and as they part, his friend tells him to check out a book that was just published by another old friend. Unassumingly, Rank checks out the book and gets hit with one of the biggest surprises, and betrayals, of his life.  The author has written a fictional story about Rank’s life including an account of an accident that, although inevitable, changed and defined Rank’s life. In retaliation Rank starts emailing the author, telling him the real story. The book consists of these emails, one after another, so the only side of the story that we ever get to see is Rank’s. He is passionate, cagey, belligerent, heartfelt and thorough. He talks about his adoption, the loss of his mother, his father’s short man syndrome and the way he used Rank, a giant hulk of a boy, to intimidate people in a way that Gordon Sr never could. His stories and memories are surprisingly insightful as he recalls being a child in the body of a man, and how people expected him to act and think like a man based solely on his size. He repeats, more than a few times, that he was only a kid; he thought like a kid, he acted like a kid. He listened to his father, because that’s what kids do. But at 15 he was bigger than most men in town, and was expected to act like that meant something. Even after the life altering incident occurs and Rank is in university, his size makes people expect certain things of him. He is expected to be a big oaf, big and dumb and good at sports. Rank does what he’s told as always, it seems at this point that he never really grew into his manhood.

It took me a little while to get into the story. When Rank starts emailing the mysterious author his emails were passionate and not always coherent. He starts and stops a lot, he’s trying to get it all out at once, and he wants his old friend to understand. To understand how horrible his life was, how horrible his father was and how horrible the betrayal was. At first he refuses to talk about his mother, and so whenever he mentions her he goes off on a tangent about how saintly she was and how he doesn’t want to talk about her. The more Rank gets into his life story though, the more I find myself angry alongside of him.

I’ve been told that this is an epistolary novel; a story told through a series of letters. It’s certainly an interesting perspective and although I was suspect of the format at first, it has grown on me. It differs from the normal first person perspective in the sense that the narrator isn’t actually narrating to us, he is narrating to the person he is emailing and so there is always going to be that skew of what he wants the recipient to see, what he wants him to feel. I feel myself getting swept up in Rank’s self-righteous anger, but I am not blinded by his side either. So many times I wanted Rank to tell people to bugger off. To tell them that he’s just a kid and just plain doesn’t know the right thing to do.

I am super interested to see where the rest of the story goes. I think that there must be more to his mother’s story, and as I am writing Rank is visiting his father and remembering why he stays away. Rank and his father have a very turbulent relationship, although Gord Sr thinks the sun and moon shines out of his sons behind. I am interested in seeing more of their relationship as adults. And I am definitely interested in seeing how Rank has come to these realizations about his youth, and how he finishes his story. Will he come to the realization that maybe being outed was the best thing for his psyche? 

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