The Antagonist, By Lynn Coady
This book is on the surface a rant by a hard-luck fellow, Gordon Rankin, Jr. (Rank), via e-mail, caused by an old college acquaintance’s novel, in which Rank finds himself the very apparent subject. Beneath the superficial rant, though, the book concerns many things:
- A mirror in which Rank sees himself as the cause of his own problems
- A look at the male athlete’s lingering hold on youth
- Religion as a failing arbiter of morality
- The weaknesses of the modern family
- The roots of alienation
- The neutrality of the novel as cultural portrayer
But to the story:
Rank is a large child-man who can’t resist the lure of things and opportunities that lead to trouble. His father, a small man, enlists Rank’s help in keeping “punks” away from his ice cream store, resulting in Ranks’ beating of one boy (Why? Because he can). From that point on, Rank’s life is a series of misadventures, making of that life a poignant, unfulfilled, empty shell.
But there is no epiphany here; in the end, Rank seems simply to tire of his rage at Adam, the old friend who wrote the novel:
“I told you what I had to tell you, and you told me something back, and that’s our story, isn’t it, Adam?”
In other words, as in James Joyce’s “A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man,” all the cultural devices meant to nurture and mature young men have failed Rank. He must then rely only on himself for redemption.
This is a difficult novel to read, and I found myself constantly flipping back to earlier references in order to have passages make sense. In that manner, the book is too abstract; it relies too heavily on ideas, pronounced or alluded to, and too little on embodying those ideas in the formation and presentation of the characters – principally Rank.
Still, Coady is a formidable, adventurous writer, and one shouldn’t allow oneself to be thrown too far off track by her experimentation with style. The vision of her work here is much too important for that.
My rating 16 of 20 stars