Fiction – hardcover; House of Anansi Press; 352 pages; 2011.
A misunderstood giant who confronts his past is the subject of Lynn Coady’s 2011 Giller Prize shortlisted novel The Antagonist.
The giant is Gordon “Rank” Rankin, adopted at birth by Sylvie and Gordon Senior, a well-meaning but mismatched couple — “The dad was a prick, the mom was a goddess” — who raise him in small town Canada.
A larger-than-normal child, Rank looks like a fully grown man by the age of 14. With this comes all kinds of complications — people treat him like an adult even though he’s just a teenage boy — and he struggles to get on with his father, a short, angry man, whom he realises he “could’ve taken” at just age six “if I’d wanted”.
Their relationship, which is largely the focus of this novel, becomes more strained when Sylvie is killed in a car accident, leaving Gordon Snr to raise 16-year-old Rank alone.
But Coady gives this tale of a difficult father-son relationship a new twist. She has Rank looking back on his troubled past from the perspective of a soon-to-be-40-year-old man who has supposedly changed his ways, although it’s clear he is filled with resentment and has a special talent for holding grudges. It’s written epistolary style, in a series of emails to a college classmate, over a three-month period in 2009.
The classmate in question has written a novel which bears striking similarities to Rank’s life — and Rank’s not happy about it. The emails are essentially one long diatribe, railing against the way his story has been stolen from him, pointing out inaccuracies and clarifying events. The bulk of the one-way correspondence is written in the first person, but towards the end — as the story builds to a dramatic and violent climax — it is written in the third person, almost as if Rank has hit his stride and is rewriting his classmate’s novel for him.
The great strength of The Antagonist is Rank’s voice — it’s angry, honest and frank — but it is never predictable. There are little “reveals” dotted throughout the narrative which makes the reader question their own judgement of Rank’s character. Is he really the crazy, antagonistic, guy from college whom everyone liked because he “livened things up”? Or is there a deeper, more emotional and misunderstood man underneath? Does he relish being a thug? Or does he not understand his own brute strength?
This is a fast-paced read, with rich and authentic descriptions of both small town and college life — and there’s a rich seam of humour running throughout. It’s set largely in the 1980s, of the generation to which I belong, so I quite enjoyed the music references. And if nothing else it so eloquently shows that you should never judge a person on appearance alone…
The Antagonist has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize. For another take on this novel please see KevinfromCanada’s review.