The Antagonist

  • Lynn Coady
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 304 pp

This clever “e-pistolary” novel for the Internet age can be read as both a story about one man's quest for maturity and an exegesis on reading and writing fiction.

Imagine you come across the novel written by a good buddy of yours from college. Pleased at his success, you buy the book and read it, only to discover that he has made you into one of the characters, and not a particularly honorable or sympathetic one at that. You come off as something of a sad, violent and brutish loser, fated to an ignominious end. In fact, you are the antagonist.

Your happiness at your friend’s achievement turns to rage. How dare he capture you, “like a bug someone had closed the pages on, squashing it between the covers forever,” at your “personal peak of idiocy,” on the cusp of adulthood, prone to all the stupid mistakes and social cruelty of someone in that stage of (im)maturity?

Such is the situation of Rank, the narrator, writer and protagonist of Lynn Coady’s diabolically clever novel, The Antagonist. Real name Gordon Rankin, Jr., he was adopted by Sylvie, a saintly, deeply religious woman whom he describes as a “glimmer of pure light,” and his namesake, Gordie, a “prick because he had Small Man syndrome,” who took vindictive delight in the latent violence presented by his oversized son. At 14, Rank “exploded into manhood,” growing to 6 foot 4, sprouting body hair, his voice “plummet[ing] into Darth Vader, Luke-I-am-your-father territory.” People suddenly viewed him as and treated him like an adult, and his father began to use him as a one-man enforcer at his ice cream shop.

The book is, in part, a contemplation of the way men are perceived in society, and the hurdles they must overcome to be the people they are on the inside, not the outside. As Rank explains, “A lot of boys don’t bother growing into men because they don’t have to. Their bodies have already done it, and it turns out that’s all anybody requires.” So, Gordie is stuck as a belligerent, foul-mouthed, equal opportunity denigrator because of his tiny stature. Rank is a slave to his monstrous proportions, the designated fighter on his ice hockey team (which gets him a scholarship to college), the dumb jock among the group of four buddies at college.

But the book is also a sly commentary on what it is like to both write and read a novel. Written as a chain of one-sided e-mails sent over the summer of 2009, it is Rank’s own book in answer to what he reads in (or into) the debut novel of one of those college friends, Adam. Adam was the nerdy one of the group, four-eyed, pale and awkward around girls. He was also the most studious and least impulsively hedonistic: in other words, the most mature. Rank feels shock and betrayal when he finds out that he is portrayed as “a dangerously unbalanced thug with an innate criminality nestled somewhere in [his] genetic soup.” He strikes back by sending his work to Adam piece-by-piece, as he’s writing it. And he needs to get it done now because, at the age of almost 40, he is a school teacher and must return to work in the fall.

As he is working on his memoir, Rank addresses many of the questions of a writer embarking upon a first book. To whom is he really addressing his work? How is the reader receiving his work? Even though he is writing to Adam, they have neither seen nor heard from each other since one fateful night 20 years before. After two brief responses to Rank’s messages, one encouraging and the other not, Adam maintains a stubborn silence. Why is he even writing it? Is it just a futile exercise in self-justification or is he actually saying something?

Oh, if only all authors were able to write off-the-cuff in such pithy and insightful prose. Descriptions are vivid, characters are vibrant and their motivations recognizable. “Scummy” people are evoked sympathetically, and even deeply offensive Gordie can be seen to have a heart of gold. True, there is an awful lot of meandering both leading up to and dissecting major events, of which there are only a few in the story, and occasionally the foreshadowing or rehashing feels like enough already. But mostly, when the umpteenth tease of what is to come reads, “The gods had already grabbed Rank by the neck a couple of times and rubbed the barbed fact of mortality directly into his idiot face. And still the big lug ambled along, wiping the blood from his eyes, assuming it didn’t apply to him specifically,” you forgive the stretching out of the plot.

The climax to Rank’s memoir is anti-climactic anyway, because the real climax to this “e-pistolary” novel is the peace that Rank achieves from reclaiming his story from Adam’s novel. And, in fact, Rank is moved to go back and read that book (neither its title or plot is revealed) for the fourth time, but, with enough distance and wisdom learned from his own writing endeavors to see that he had been too defensive in the first place. Maybe the book wasn’t all about him and he wasn’t made out to be quite the jerk he initially thought he had been. Which is a nice metaphor for life. We start out thinking we are the protagonist, the “I” of the narrative, the most important factor to a story, and then, if lucky (or unlucky) enough to gain maturity, find that we are in fact nothing but, as Rank puts it, “the absence of a good story.”

Funny, thoughtful and vividly written, The Antagonist is one man’s lonely journey to becoming the hero of his own life. Enjoyable enough to be a good beach or airplane book and insightful enough to be required reading for a fiction writing course, Lynn Coady’s novel delivers a universal message that resonates with the adult in all of us.

Alice Stephens is a regular contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books.

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