canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Play the Monster Blind
by Lynn Coady
Doubleday, 2000

Reviewed by Harold Hoefle

Play the Monster Blind, Lynn Coady's new collection of short fiction, will wow you. Any reader who finds fault with her plots, characterizations, or style would be merely revealing the source of their own criticism - jealousy. For story-writing rarely gets better. Of course, many writers describe well the nuances of womanly thought and feeling, but these authors don't make you laugh very often, and when they do it's an ironic in-your-head chuckle. Coady's bag of insights is as big as anyone else's, yet her humour will make you clutch your stomach and laugh aloud.

Here's a man whose daughter comes home late, swearing and holding a take-out: "You're getting a mouth. ... You're eating chicken. You have to go back to religion." Another dad, angry at the drunk he's trying to help: "You're more full of shit that my own arse." And the single mother who's just been offered a job, knowing it is "such a rare thing that to refuse would be like showing your middle finger to God just when he was in a good mood." Coady's voice, her sensibility? Pretend Flann O'Brien was a woman and randy James Joyce had not met Nora Barnacle, then pretend sexual communion and the birth of a girl - that girl would be watchful, scatological, lyric and playful. Lynn Coady.

Nine of the eleven stories in this collection are set in Cape Breton, the other two in British Columbia. In terms of character, diction, and tone, Coady shows impressive variety and modulation. In "A Great Man's Passing," a young woman returns to Cape Breton after years away - a common Coady plot-starter. In a time of coping with single motherhood, she meets her old friend Cookie Sloane at the tavern, and he tells her about sex:

Mummy told me you was living down here now. ... Said you got knocked up and have a little boy now. That can be tough, eh?. ... I'm saying to Mary Catherine [his sister] all the time, 'Now don't you fuck! I don't care how bored you get, don't do it.' It's not all that much fun anyhow and it gives a lot of stupid bastards something to talk about and a person to feel superior to. But I suppose the girls've gotta get their rocks off somehow, too, that's only fair.

Coady moves easily from serio-comic, colloquial speech to sentences that echo David Adams Richards. In "Ice-Cream Man" she describes a girl's memory of living with her bath-loving, now-dead mother: "And the whole hallway saturated with the smell of lavender and honey and Jim Beam, still hanging in the air when you're getting up for school." The sensory-detail and despair mix - you see the picture and feel the dragging-down atmosphere.

Coady's stories have women narrators and protagonists who, refreshingly un-self-involved, get through their tough moments with face-the-fumes stoicism. With convincing honesty and shrewdness, they describe themselves - that "boring useless anxiety dream" - and the people and situations around them. For example, on attitudes to children: "Children are the only people that other people stare at without worrying about it. Children aren't supposed to notice, or care." You get the sense that Coady understands people, but it's an understanding lined with humility. In "Run Every Day," a woman recalls Gerald, the wild childhood friend who would point to someone on television and crow "That's just like me!" though there was no apparent resemblance. "But I understood what he meant. It was just like the way that he was in his head. I understood how difficult it was to show people how you really were in your head."

Reading these stories and knowing that Coady lived for many years in Port Hawkesbury, the temptation is to slot her into the tradition of past and present Maritime writers: people like Hugh MacLennan, Alistair MacLeod, Richards, and Ann-Marie MacDonald. But these writers are Maritime writers by a stroke of genetic and geographic fate, and their greatness derives not from where they grew up, but from the way they write. If Lynn Coady had grown up in Kathmandu, she would be a great Nepalese writer. As things stand, however, I'll call her Canadian, and say that Play the Monster Blind, is as good a story-collection as this country has seen. Coady, thirty years old and with awards for both her plays and the novel Strange Heaven (1998) behind her, is the author you should go to next. If you haven't already.


Harold Hoefle teaches literature in a Montreal high school, and his story "Spray Job" appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of The Nashwaak Review.







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