Giller Prize winner exposes the amusing yet frustrating limitations of communication.
Based on its curious portmanteau title, Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing could initially be mistaken for a sombre and even depressing collection of short stories, centred on the idea of individual manifestations of hell. This was my first thought when I picked up this year’s Giller Prize winner. However, as I opened to the book to the first story, “Wireless,” I was quickly proven wrong. The story begins by humourously describing the obsessive personality of a freelance journalist named Jan, who as a teenager compulsively exalted over a kiddie TV show calledRobo-Friendz. In her adult years, her obsessive behaviour persists as she proudly and vehemently embraces her condition as a “functioning alcoholic,” and continually compares herself to the perpetually inebriated writer Jean Rhys. Jan’s shortcomings are described as almost endearing quirks that work both for and against her.
The entire collection unfurled in a similar way, revealing character after character with eccentric, neurotic, and most importantly relatable personality ticks. Although these traits are often double sided, Coady plays up the humour and the irony in even the most unacceptable qualities—like Jan’s obsessions. Throughout the short stories, Coady simultaneously celebrates and mocks her characters’ idiosyncrasies by placing them in situations where their nuanced personalities clash with the eccentricities of various people in their lives. Most often, these interactions result in complex but undeniably amusing miscommunications.
Although the book is built on a foundation of witty observations, in some ways my initial impression wasn’t wholly off the mark. Coady’s characters, though usually comedic and subtly droll, are each haunted by a corner of their own intangible hell. There is something very bittersweet about each story, and it is because Coady reveals integral, but incredibly subtle, truths about the limitations of human interaction. In most cases her characters’ inability to communicate with the people in their lives stems from their misunderstandings of themselves.
This is something the author transfers to her readers. Coady sets up her stories so that the readers can solve and identify the problems that her characters are only dully aware of, and cannot pinpoint or express. In this way, Coady makes it so that the struggles her characters go through are also her readers’ own. Just as Coady’s characters fail to articulate and communicate with those around them, I found myself equally at a loss to understand and express exactly how the stories had affected me as I read. After each story, I needed to take a few minutes to absorb what I had just experienced before moving on to the next section.
After reading “Natural Elements,” I put down the book, in tears, and wondered what exactly happened that made me so suddenly emotional. I’m still truing to figure it out. The story was about Cal, an aging father and a landlord who is chastised by his feminist and politically correct daughter for his old-fashioned expressions and somehow well-intentioned misogyny (he calls his single thirty-five year old female tenant a “girl,” and doesn’t even bother to learn her name).
Although Cal is at fault for using out-dated and condescending language, Coady paints him in a sympathetic light as he frets over whether or not his tenant has enough heat, and yells at her husband for abandoning her in a big house all alone. In so many ways, Cal transfers the protective attitude he has for his daughter onto his tenant, because he realizes the limitations of his influence on his now college-aged daughter. In one particularly blatantly poignant passage, Cal reflects that “[If] a two-hundred-pound man wants to drag you into an alley, he will drag you into that alley.… It won’t matter how many times you correct an old man for calling a woman a ‘girl.’ You’re still going into that alley.”
At this moment, Cal is both missing the point entirely, and yet wholly correct and straightforward on another level. This nuanced space between right and wrong, where self-awareness is present, but almost irrelevant, repeats itself throughout Coady’s stories in a way that is both jarring and irresistible.
Just as Coady draws attention to her characters’ lack of self-awareness and their unconsciously conflicting ideas, she forces her readers to wonder what subtle elements of hypocrisy we are ignoring in our own lives. In what ways are we living in our own hell? What makes these questions bearable to ask—and so too what makes these stories bearable, and even immensely enjoyable to read—is Coady’s insistence on the fact that even though we’re all slightly ‘Hell going,’ at least we’re doing so with our own wonderful and hilarious idiosyncrasies to keep us company.