Book Review: The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady

Antagonist“It’s funny how it’s the memories of shame that hang on longest.”

After finishing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, I’m now two for two with books propelled by rage. Unfortunately for The Antagonist, it pales in comparison to the sublime, burning anger of Woman (review here). To be fair to Lynn Coady, that’s where the similarities end, and I wouldn’t dream of comparing her novel to a different one that just happened to share a similar pub date. It was just one of those coincidences.

Gordon Rankin, Jr (aka Rank) is furious. The object of his rage is Adam, a former college friend he hasn’t seen in twenty years or so. Adam just published a novel receiving some modest acclaim–a novel that Rank believes is about him. A novel that he feels distorted the truth about his life. Now he wants Adam to know just what he thinks about what he did–not to mention a chance to set the record straight about his life. So he tracks down Adam’s email address and begins sending him email after email.

Part of the problem with The Antagonist is that it can’t sustain the rage. Ultimately, that’s kind of the point here, so it seems unfair to fault the novel for it. Still, since the entire pretense is that Rank is compelled to write all this to Adam because of how angry he feels, it’s a big disappointment that the fire flames out so darned quickly.

In fact, the narrative itself has a very tough time getting going because Rank, as a narrator, just can’t seem to get out of his own way. There are numerous false starts and digressions. Coady tries to turn it into a joke–or at least a sort of meta-commentary about the difficulties of telling your story and remaining honest. That could have been a brilliant idea, but in the end it just feels like inept storytelling more than anything else. And the fact that there may be a few smart observations about storytelling and self-discovery is undermined when it becomes too bothersome to care about if and when Rank will ever get to the point. Rank tries to set up his story as a tease, repeatedly promising a big reveal at the end. But the reveal isn’t actually surprising (let alone devastating) because you’ve been cued to expect it all along, which makes the teasing more of an annoyance than anything else.

There are also structural problems in the form of the emails themselves. Each “chapter” is a single email from Rank to Adam, but where they stop and how they begin is disjointed. Many of them don’t have a logical ending-point for someone writing an email; instead, they end at the perfect spot for a chapter break (or just stop). Rank is deliberately, openly, defiant when it comes to piecing his narrative together in a form that makes sense. There’s nothing wrong with that–plenty of novels defy the conventional chronology to splendid effect (Gone Girl being a very popular, effective, and recent example). But here the structure isn’t compelling so much as it is irksome.

There are clever moments here and there. Coady has a delightfully sarcastic sense of humor. But I just couldn’t get into The Antagonist.

Grade: C-

PS As per my mission statement, I am obligated to tell you that I received this book as part of Amazon’s Vine program.


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