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October 11, 2013

Book Notes - Lynn Coady "The Antagonist"

The Antagonist

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Lynn Coady's The Antagonist is an exceptional epistolary novel that powerfully explores themes of identity and storytelling.

The New Yorker wrote of the book:

"Coady's fluency in the language of the college boy [is] impressive, [as is] her feel for the camaraderie that is inseparable from rivalry and masculine aggression."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In her own words, here is Lynn Coady's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, The Antagonist:

There is a lot of music in the background of The Antagonist, particularly around the point when our hero, Rank, starts to relive his university days. This is the early 90s, but in Rank's circle nobody is really listening to the music of that era. Nirvana, for example, goes unextolled. Rank's friends are cautious boys, looking around for clues as to what's cool but in the meantime dutifully spinning the more tried and true choices of days gone by—bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones. That is, bands who were edgy in their heyday but that have, by this point, been around long enough to qualify as a safe choice for young men trying to seem cool, dudely, tasteful yet not-gay.

The musical backdrop was important to me when I was writing The Antagonist because the pop music choices of Rank and his friends offer up so many subtle and important clues as to who these guys are and what it is they are trying to convey about themselves—that is, the kind of men they think they should be. Popular music is one of the only art forms that conventional straight guys are allowed to partake of with any enthusiasm. At the same time, however, there's an extremely narrow range of choices such guys are permitted to access. It's a self-policing process. (As soon as it is pointed out to Wade that, as Kyle jeers, "Dude, the name of the band is Queen," the offending albums disappear from his collection.)

That said, I wasn't listening to any of the music Rank and his friends were listening to when I was writing The Antagonist. Rank might have had it cranked to eleven, but I was listening to the music he was trying not to hear. I always make a playlist when I'm starting a new novel of songs that I think will evoke the kind of mood I want the book to have. For this book, I thought of the playlist as Rank's subconscious soundtrack.

So I chose songs that evoked Rank's outer and inner worlds to varying degrees. The outer songs tended to be raucous and macho, songs that give you the sense of someone partying at the edge of night, trying to holler and drink himself into oblivion. The inner songs, however, were the voices Rank was most trying to drown out—these songs are gentle and delicate, sometimes creepy, but most often unbearably sad. Then there were the songs in between—what I thought of as the "perfect" songs. They had it all—sadness tinged with defiance tinged with danger. Here are a representative few.

Joanna Newsom—"Swansea"

This is one of the above-mentioned "gentle and delicate" songs, the lyrics of which—like so many Newsom songs—creep me out entirely. There's that line: "How I would love to gnaw/ gnaw on your bones so white" and "all we want to do/is chew and chew and chew". The quality of obsessiveness is what struck me here, what made me think about Rank. He's obsessed with death and his own role in it, his own shame, and he can't ever let it go—he just keeps gnawing that bone. I wrote the book imagining Newsom's sweet, scary little voice tinkling away somewhere deep in the back Rank's mind.

Wilco—"I am Trying to Break Your Heart"

I don't exactly like this song. I find it upsetting because somehow Jeff Tweedy has managed to write what it's like to have a conversation with an alcoholic who also happens to be someone you love. The song opens with that prideful, fuck-you declaration, "I am an American aquarium drinker", followed by the acknowledgement that the speaker is a careening force of destruction, "I assassin down the avenue." Although it is never stated outright in The Antagonist, I'm pretty sure this is a posture Rank struck during his years with Kirsten, and is big part of what led to their break up. The rest of the song is the typical self-loathing and incoherence tinged with hostility—"This is not a joke so please stop smiling"—and wrapping up with the line that is the subtext of every conversation with an alcoholic loved one: "I am trying to break your heart."

Lou Reed—"Street Hassle/Waltzing Matilda"

For me this song falls smack in the middle of Rank's psychic continuum—nothing says "partying at the edge of oblivion" like the music of Lou Reed, but at the same time, this song is not like the others—it manages to be at once gorgeous and lush (with its soaring strings) and sordid and grim (with the sex-and-death story it tells), so again it has that split personality thing going on—gorgeous within, thug-like without—that for me is at the core of Rank.

The Vaselines—"Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam"

As a lapsed Catholic, the mournful defiance of this song always hit me where I lived—and mournful defiance is pretty much Rank's middle name. But Rank is much more than a lapsed Catholic—he is an out and out apostate. The word "lapsed" indicates someone who has passively "fallen away" but Rank's apostasy is active and purposeful. He's mad at God—he's in as big an argument with God, throughout the novel, as he is with Adam, the person he's writing his story to and for. Sometimes he even gets the two of them confused, maybe because he basically wants the same two things from both of them: an explanation and an apology.

Gillian Welch—"The Devil Had a Hold of Me"

This song felt right because it's another "god probably hates me" song in the same way "Jesus Doesn't Want Me For a Sunbeam" is, but it has more of a dangerous edge as opposed to a defiant one—the danger being the caveat: "but the devil thinks I'm great!" Also its hillbilly quality feels appropriate to Rank's Canadian-hillbilly background as a guy from backwoods, small town, uber-Catholic Atlantic Canada. Rank comes from the same kind of psychic environment as Welch's song does—a place where god and the devil are considered real and influential figures in your life, and you are always with one and against the other, with your soul either in utter peril or utterly damned. Rank of course would say hell-no, he's an enlightened and educated guy with no time for religious bullshit. But the ever-so-Catholic way he carries his guilt around with him like a 50-pound hair-shirt tells a different story.

Lisa Germano—"It's a Rainbow"

This is the obligatory sad-drunk song, the mood of which characterized many of Rank's long dark nights of the soul, or so I imagined. What kills is the boozy, guilt-drenched refrain: "blame me, blame me, there's always me to blame."

Ugly Casanova—"Things I Don't Remember"

"Things I don't remember. How'd the hell we get here? How the hell did we get here?" The opening lines kind of say it all when it comes to Rank, as the novel is in some ways all about memory—feeling plagued and persecuted by it, and terrified at the idea that, for all the control it has over your life, memory and reality might actually represent two very different things.

That said, the choice of Ugly Casanova for my playlist was more of a mood-choice. I like the moaning, masculine sound of this band, particularly Issac Brock's vocals. Also, Sharpen Your Teeth, the record this song is from, is a kind of shouty record—it features a lot of male voices shouting and howling in anger, excitement, passion—The Antagonist, too, is a kind of masculine shout. Uh—in book form.

Lynn Coady and The Antagonist links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Globe and Mail review
National Post review
New York Journal of Books review
New York Times review
Quill and Quire review
Washington Post review

Medium essays by the author
Open Book Ontario interview with the author
Salty Ink interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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