Lynn Coady stopped by the Babble Book Lounge for the final discussion of her novel, The Antagonist, with the Babble Book Club. Right from the first question it was evident that everyone came prepped and ready with questions and comments and our rapid fire conversation ensued. For those who have yet to read The Antagonist, get ready to grab your copy, and for those who have already read it, well, you might just pick it up again! There may be some so-called 'spoilers' so beware; however, Lynn's passionate and revealing responses about herself and her novel is deserving of the read no matter your place in the book.
A special thanks to Lynn Coady for joining us (of course) and to all those who came and provided their great questions and comments or just tuned in for the fun! The conversation was enlightening and exciting, providing glimpses and opinions into the novel that may not have been discovered. Check out the original babble thread too!
So without further ado, here are some of the highlights of the Babble Book Club conversation with Lynn Coady!
Who is the Antagonist? Is it the narrator Rank, father Gord or friend Adam? Potentially a case can be made for all three?
The answer is all of the above. For me what makes a great title is exactly that contradictory quality of it feeling dead on and ambiguous at the same time. On the most literal level, 'the antagonist' references Rank -- the character Adam creates out of him in his (Adam's) novel. That's Rank's motivating fear -- was he the antagonist in that novel and, by extension (assumes Ranks), real life? Was he the villain of his own story? No matter how hard he tries to be a good guy, has the universe decided otherwise for him? But then the deeper Rank delves into his own past, via his writing, the more the ambiguity comes into play. Adam becomes, in many ways, the antagonist of the book Rank is writing -- this annoying dude who has provoked and betrayed him, yet refuses to engage with him online. And of course then there is Rank's very antagonistic relationship with his father. Finally, there's Rank's theological musings -- is god (or the gods) on his side or is he (are they) not? And if god is his antagonist, what does that make Rank?
You mention Rank's theological musings. There seems to be 'God' awareness running through most if not all of your books. Can you comment on how religion has influenced your writings?
Yes, Catholicism. That does seem to be one of my "things". In fact as I was writing above about the three-man antagonism triad of Adam, Rank and Gord Sr., I realized there is a whole 'trinity' thing going on. I can't seem to get away from it. That's something Rank and I have in common.
Is Catholicism something from your past you're still trying to shake?
My Catholic upbringing is something that has given me a lot of gifts in terms of my writing -- the bible is a source of incredible drama and poetry. At the same time, I'm always struggling, psychologically, to counter some if it's not-so-great effects of that conditioning upon my psyche: a propensity to feel guilty 24/7 for example. I just participated in a conversation with Russell Smith on CBC to do with the fact that I never seem to write about sex. I don't say this with any pride, it's not something I do on principle -- It's a psychological block that I am constantly having to chip away at!
Rank is clearly a damaged individual: how does the relationship with his mother and her subsequent death weave into this?
Well, Rank being raised Catholic, he was kind of subconsciously weened on the whole virgin/whore, holy mary/mary magdalene dichotomy. And when it came to his mother -- well as far as he was concerned she definitely fell on the "holy" side of the spectrum. And yet, Sylvie represents the downside of that ideal -- she's passive, she is a bit of a martyr, she holds onto her suffering as a kind of virtue, until finally she decides she can suffer no more. Spoiler alert: near the end, when Rank discovers his mothers plans to leave Gord, a part of him is thrilled because she's finally repudiating the martyr role. But the fact that she dies almost immediately after Rank learns this feels, on some level to Rank like a cosmic punishment of them both, like his mother is being punished for her "sin" of deciding to abandon her husband. But even more importantly, Rank takes the sin upon himself because he's the one who always wished she would make this decision.
I wonder if Rank is more drawn to his mother pre-marriage or post-marriage? She seems to waver on that dichotomy as well, representing independence before and submissiveness after marriage.
Good point. On some level I think Rank's struggle with loving his mom pre-marriage v.s. post-marriage is a reflection of his struggle with Catholicism. Is it okay to love a version of his mom that wasn't quite so "holier than thou" as she was post-Gord? Also, on some level, Rank is really angry at his mom for allowing Gord to take over to the extent that he had -- for never putting her foot down.
Years of marriage to an angry guy like Gord could erode someone's identity and independence. His anger is so large there wouldn't be room for much else in the relationship.
Sylvie is a fascinating character, but she also married him in the first place -- what would drive her to do this since she also seemed financially and personally independent? She was gruff and tough, leading an independent lifestyle and then she marries Gord? Is this Catholicism's influence as well? Then again that seems to be a prominent story from some Canadian suburbs.
It's not just Catholicism at work, it's a lot of pressures of the time -- Sylvie was a rural Canadian girl in the 1960s. I think a lot of us know women of our mother's and grandmother's generation who were the roughest, toughest gals around but they still had to content with major societal pressure to act and be a certain way. If you throw religion on top of that, you get a lot of women feeling a lot of pressure to tamp down their natural inclinations.
I think the pre-Gord Sylive and post-Gord Sylvie cast a bright light on how a strong, unconventional and independent woman would stay in an abusive relationship. This is something many people can't understand, and Rank's anger toward her is a sort of indictment of our society's inability to understand what abuse does to women.
Yes, exactly. Thank you for the comment, I appreciate it.
Was this a difficult book to write because of the overall self-destructive, pessimism that pervades the book? Were these characters based on real individuals or experiences you've had?
Not really, certainly not in any direct way, but I definitely have had experiences with male anger and my own anger and feeling envious, sometimes, of guys for the more straightforward ways in which they are permitted to express it. Strangely, it wasn't that difficult a novel to write or a voice to write in. There was something really freeing and energizing about Rank's anger. It has it's own built-in momentum!
Gord can get 'railroaded' in conversation, but it seems there are parts where you are trying to show a softer side of him (somewhat subtly done), which made him a more likeable character.
I always love readers who have an empathetic reaction to Gord. Gord is my favourite character because he draws those contradictory responses from readers. I remember in my first draft I have Rank describing Gord as "cute" -- or imagining other people seeing him that way. And my husband read it and said "No, you can't write that! Gord doesn't seem cute at all, he just seems like an asshole." And while I agree that "cute" is probably not the best way to describe the finished version of the character Gord, he definitely can come across as somewhat, cuddly? He's got that vulnerable core where you realize how insecure he is and how much he wants to know that he is loved and respected. Whenever he feels he's not getting the love and respect he deserves (which is about 99 per cent of the time) he lashes out in really over-the-top ways. And that's what makes him infuriating. However, there is no getting around the fact that he loves his son unreservedly. No matter how big an asshole he is, his love never wavers and there is something endearing in that I'd like to think.
The epistolary form was popular in some of the first Canadian novels (18th Century) and it's cool to see it used in the modern context email. What made you decide to use that form?
I decided to use that form precisely for the reason you identified, I thought it would be an interesting 21st century twist on a very traditional form! People often ask me questions along the lines of "Where in the world did you get such a unique idea for how to structure a novel?" and I tell them "Thank you, but it's centuries old!"
I feel like the email format forced readers to get inside Rank's head and mannerisms. Do you think using email exposed more elements to Rank's personality and reasoning than a more traditional style of writing?
Yes, the email format allowed me to "trick" Rank into writing his life story. At first, he doesn't realize that's what he's doing. He thinks he is just getting back at Adam and "setting the story straight." I wanted Rank to be seduced by the pleasures of narrative, and in that way he'd start to see things from Adam's point-of-view -- he'd start to relate to Adam as an author.
It is difficult as times to read the book, especially in the beginning because your writing has forced the reader inside the complex character of Rank. The writing causes feelings of nervousness and trepidation and a questioning of actually having to be in the mind of that character of Rank.
I made a deliberate effort to create that feeling of 'trepidation' in the reader at the beginning of the book. Not every reader responded well it to because it's a direct address -- Rank addresses a "you" that the reader doesn't immediately realize is Adam -- and it's hostile. Rank starts off by basically insulting and threatening the "you" who the email is meant for. My hope was that readers would feel grabbed by this way of beginning and interested enough to keep going, but that could be my own bias. I love a book that makes me scared from the very first page!
Rank seem raw witha great deal of intelligence because he doesn't seem to be editing himself or revising as one might if they were writing a traditional narrative. His emails howed him to be a complex character who manages to develop and become better than his father. How did you go about researching a character like him? Is it annoying when readers ask whether he must reflect someone from your own life?
It's a difficult questions because to answer "no" would be ridiculous -- if a writer didn't derive material from her own life, I don't know what any of us would write about. But to say "yes" seems to invite people to suppose I know a guy like Rank with a father like Gord and a mom like Sylvie and a friend like Adam, none of which is the case. I've known people who have qualities in common with all my characters, and I've known drug dealers. I've never known anyone whose mother died in a car accident, I've never known anybody who experiences the kind of trauma Rank does in his life. I've definitely known guys like the guys Rank pals around with in college -- who hasn't? So it's a complicated question. You take a little from your past, a little from the people you've met, a whole lot from your imagination! With researching the character of Rank, it was mostly imagination actually. There's a lot of me in Rank, you might be surprised to know. I've experienced his anger and confusion around Catholicism, his guilt (not about beating people up though!), and I've even experienced the same kind of cognitive dissonance in adolescence when people started responding in really weird ways to your developing body. Needless to say, Rank's [body] gets different responses than [mine] did, but it's the exact same feeling of: "what the hell? I'm the same person! I just stopped playing with barbies! What are you talking to me like I'm a grownup?"
Did you feel explaining this phenomenon through the eyes of a giant 15 year-old was more interesting than through the eyes of a 15 year-old girl going through puberty?
No, not really. It was kind of a thought experiment for me -- I just thought it would be interesting to imagine what the giant 15 year-old boy version of that experience would be. I thought it would help me find empathy with Rank.
Thanks again to all those who participated in the Babble Book Club conversation with Lynn Coady and shared their thoughts and opinions.
Interested in joining the Babble Book Club? Check us out and pick up our newest selection: Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor!
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