The sturdy, bitter heart of Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing

draft dodgers - lynn coady

It’s difficult to describe how I feel about this collection of (Giller Prize-winning) short stories but I’m going to try anyway.

This isn’t normally the sort of book I’d pick up, because short stories aren’t really my jam. But I’m taking a class in Canadian short fiction this semester and I think it’s going to be really good for me. I mean, even if I dropped out tomorrow it’s introduced me to Lynn Coady. That’s a win.

And while I keep saying short stories aren’t really my jam, I keep finding collections of short stories that punch me in the sternum, and new collections of short stories keep ending up on the to-read pile. So maybe I should revisit the prejudices I have against short stories.

But let’s talk about Hellgoing, as much as one can talk about Hellgoing.

Coady had me hooked from the very first story. “Wireless” (which, it’s worth nothing, you can read online in full thanks to The Walrus) follows Jane, who believes “to care a great deal about something, no matter how implicitly interesting it may be, is to come across as a kind of freak.” It’s not exactly clear how this disdain for obsession is connected – or disconnected – from the fact that Jane is an alcoholic. After all, it’s not that she obsesses about alcohol. But by the time we reach the end of the story it becomes clear that she obsesses over the control she has over alcohol – or the control that alcohol has over her.

“I mean we’re engaged in drinking, yes, on the surface.” She leaned forward. “Over-drinking. Self-medication. But we have to be precise about why that is, don’t you think? If we’re going to withdraw from the world, we’d better have damn good reasons why—if, if you accept that’s what it is we’re doing. We’d better be able to rhyme off those reasons if called upon to do so. If people accuse us of being afraid, we can explain that fear is a perfectly reasonable response to the world in which we live. The trick is, we can’t be afraid of being afraid. We can’t cower behind locked doors with our gin bottles and our arms across our eyes, if you know what I mean.”

“Wireless” is a neatly knotted ball of exerted control, of one thing pretending to have power over another. It’s not clear who or what is really in control; we’re left to pick through the tangle ourselves, to search out the sturdy, vulnerable heart of the story without explicit instructions.

And that’s the beauty of this collection, in a nutshell. Coady’s characters are familiar and strange, all at once. Their motivations are hidden, both from themselves and the reader. We meet a teenager who refuses to eat anything but communion. We meet a new bride aching to return to her home S&M dungeon after her destination wedding. In “Mr. Hope,” the final story of Hellgoing, Coady introduces us to a schoolgirl and her substitute teacher, who serves as a protective figure, a dealer of justice from above. And when his judgement turns against the girl at the end of the story – as we desperately hope that it won’t, but as it must – Coady punches you right in the sternum. There’s no other word for it.

 

The image at the top of this post is a cropped version of a photo available for use and remixing through Creative Commons and Wikimedia Commons. I couldn’t find any freely available images of Lynn Coady to pair with this post, but Google somewhat helpfully suggested this image of volunteers counselling draft dodgers circa 1968? I highly suggest you check out the beautiful and more accurate images of Lynn Coady at Kill Your Darlings  or Rabble

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