Saturday, March 18, 2006

Type Cast 9

I covet new novels by Cape Breton born Lynn Coady with the same fervour that foodies covet aged truffle oils and free range goat pomades, or whatever those nasty little turds of mouldy blue cheese are called. A Lynn Coady novel will instantly transport me back to my ancestral homelands, the old country, the expletive scorched valleys and cod dappled mounds of Atlantic Canada - where people are cheerfully morbid, argumentative for fun, and as unapologetically bilious as, well, icky cobalt goat cheese.

With a handful of wildly entertaining novels and a growing collection of sparkling short stories, Coady has created a body of work that positions her as the anti-Alistair MacLeod. You won’t find any of the familiar stereotypes of Atlantic Canadians in Coady’s books – no stoic, hard bitten natural poets ennobled by grinding poverty, no long suffering seamen’s wives wandering the harbours wrapped in shawls and seaweed, no toothless fiddlers full of gingery wisdom. Coady smartly leaves that nonsense to the lighthouse-haunting romantics.

What you will find in a Coady comedy is the most thunderous cacophony of oddballs, cranks, lunatics, bores and ferocious talkers created since the heyday of Preston Sturges . Critics of Coady’s fiction stumble over themselves trying to unravel her ease with screwball antics, and heartily praise the way she seamlessly blends the mundane pursuits of her hapless characters with madcap pacing that would send Kingsley Amis reeling. Some devotees have even attempted to mine her work for Life Lesson gold (Coady does set all her works within some form of loving family dynamic, albeit one as cracked as a dropped plate), but I suggest the reader look elsewhere for psychological reassurance – Coady’s characters are simply too wily to pin down.

Coady’s new novel, Mean Boy, is a juicy coming of age tale set within the satire worthy halls of a small PEI university. A mix of St. Urbain’s Horseman and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, with some Montgomery-esque pictorials thrown in for colour, Mean Boy follows the fortunes of aspiring poet Larry Campbell, a working class boy desperate to leave behind his unimpressive beginnings and become a great writer, just like his idol and professor Jim. As Larry grows more and more fond of Jim and increasingly separated from his origins, the Trilby-Svengali relationship turns hilariously sour. Reading Mean Boy is like eating an entire bag of salt and vinegar chips – the most tongue-blistering bits, the searing, sharpest crumbs, wait like jellyfish at the bottom of the bag.

Coady’s great strength is her keen ear for dialogue (which I imagine is pointy and elf like – her ear, that is, although the dialogue is pretty sharp too), and I’ve always wondered if she was one of those writers who lingers in coffee shops and scribbles down found conversations. From the comfort of her Edmonton home – lying is so much easier over the phone – Coady swears she makes it all up.

“No, I don’t take notes. I’m not an eavesdropper, but I am a snooper. I’m not the kind of person who carries around a notebook, but every once in a while … There is some dialogue in Mean Boy that I overheard on a bus from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver. This woman sitting behind me was just going and going, and I had to write it down.”

“Growing up, I was pretty quiet. I learned about people by listening to how they communicated their thoughts. And I grew up in Cape Breton, where everybody is kind of blustery, and the conversation never stops. People talk in Cape Breton almost as if they’re talking for comfort.”

Setting a novel in a university, even if the university is as treacherous as a coal pit, is something of a departure for Coady. Her previous fictions were primarily set in the working world, the world of shifts and lunch pails and taverns. Is she trying to land a tenure track job?

“I think setting this novel in the academic world is kind of a natural progression for me. The place I first encountered people who were not working class people was at university, like a lot of Canadians who come from similar backgrounds as me - and Larry’s progress does somewhat mirror mine, except my coming of age was more internal.”

“What drew me to this setting was that while a university might be located in the middle of nowhere, as are most of the universities where I come from, people come to the campus from all different backgrounds and make it cosmopolitan. I wanted to write about those important but vulnerable first years when you leave your family and meet other people from other classes and places, and realize that you don’t have to be one way for the rest of your life.”

This being Canada, I have to raise the topic of regionalism. Coady and I have both railed, in various venues, about how the literary world in Canada only seems to appreciate Atlantic Canadian fiction that re-affirms non-Atlantic Canadians’ ideas about the area - how the smartest thing to do, from a marketing perspective, is to write a sentimental, sugary tale featuring sad but brave Down East peasantry. And yet, Coady continues to return to the region for her inspiration. Is she crazy or just cantankerous?

“It’s not deliberate, it’s just the place where my imagination sets itself, whether I want it to or not, my psychic ground zero. But the longer I’ve been away from home, the more I feel I’m moving away from home as a topic. I feel that maybe Mean Boy is my farewell to the region.”

“You know, there probably is an expectation that my books be about the Maritimes, but the people who sell my books would probably be happy if the fiction moved away from there, because it might be perceived as limiting. I also suspect I’d do really well if I was to write something very lush and gothic about Maritime life, something very melodramatic and turgid, which I don’t want to do, needless to say. I react against that kind of thing - strongly.”