For several years, Lynn Coady – whose 2011 novel, The Antagonist, was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize – hosted a “group therapy” advice column for The Globe and Mail, an experience that may have influenced the stories in Hellgoing. Throughout, the Edmonton-based author presents relationships fraught with moral and emotional complexities. Though her subject matter remains contemporary and her approach realistic, her characters always seem out of sync with their world and each other. As with the scenarios in her column, the reader is called upon to interpret and make sense of the messes these people have made.
The source of the problem usually lies in characters acting and speaking at cross purposes. This is presented most starkly in “An Otherworld,” which focuses on the S&M relationship between Sean and Erin. A caning, Erin tries to explain, should hurt, but not really hurt. Like a lot of the things Erin says, this leaves Sean puzzled. When Erin talks about her orgasms, he understands she isn’t being literal, but can’t figure out if he is being complimented or is missing the point.
This failure to communicate distinguishes the up-and-down, over-analyzed partnership of Kim and Hart in “Body Condom” (the title introduces the theme of isolation represented within the story by a wetsuit), and the spectacular mutual incomprehension that marks the conclusion of “Dogs in Clothes.” Even something as simple as the flag on a mailbox (in the title story) may be a faulty signifier: “You could never trust the flag.”
In fact, there’s not much you can trust in these stories; lovers, family, even the characters’ own feelings (which often shock with a physical abruptness) have the capacity to ambush and betray. A sharp, insightful writer with a tight, jarring style that makes use of fast narrative cuts, Coady deliberately leaves the human scribble tangled. This isn’t out of a desire to play coy, but rather an admission that problems involving relationships don’t have easy resolutions that can be clearly expressed.
Misreadings, miscommunications, and disconnections lead to moments of awkwardness and revelation. To her credit, Coady makes us feel every bit of her characters’ confusion and discomfort in a collection as difficult as it is insightful and rewarding.