Play the Monster Blind
by Lynn Coady
Published by Doubleday Canada
228 pages, 2000
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Lynn Coady is that rare kind of writer who can make you laugh until you cry. To label her fiction "comic" is to do it a great disservice, because there is always so much more going on: delicate underlayers, dangling nerve-endings and things noted and remarked upon that the rest of us are trying to forget. Without the belly laughs to punctuate the unbearable truth-telling, her work might be too uncomfortable to enjoy.
Most humorists are tinged with a certain melancholy and Coady is no exception. Her first novel, the highly-praised Strange Heaven, brilliantly exposed the dynamics of life in small-town Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. It also introduced Coady's readers to some of her main obsessions: alcoholism, the Catholic church, the tyranny of the elderly, wasted talents, unwanted pregnancy and the poisonous power of gossip.
Coady has refined and developed these themes with painful accuracy in her eleven-story collection Play the Monster Blind. Most of her characters either live in Cape Breton, are trying to get away, or have already left but feel the invisible tug of a long, taut umbilical cord stretched all the way to the other side of the country. Like Margaret Laurence's Manawaka, Coady's Cape Breton lives on in the skull, its dark memories all too portable.
Bethany, a young woman "from away," gets her introduction to this subculture when she goes to meet her fiancé John's raucous, booze-soaked family in the collection's title story. It's an effective device, as Bethany the outsider tries to take it all in, camera-like, attempting to make sense of the chaotic impressions and fend off a sense of shock.
Mock-violence and alcohol-fuelled belligerence rule this family, along with a certain inbred quality. John's smarter brother Hugh "didn't go anywhere after university because, he said, all his friends were here." His sister Ann is dangerously anorexic and his uncle is mentally challenged: "Lachie was his name, and she found him delightful. He reached out one hand and wished her Merry Christmas as she shook it, and then he extended the other to wish her Happy Easter. He puttered away, then, announcing, 'There now! He knows Betty!' to all present."
What saves these characters from caricature is their humanness, eloquently expressed in their often wildly funny dialogue. In this scene Bethany tries to manage at the dinner table:
"Get Betty some more potatoes, Annie. Jesus Christ, she's wasting before our eyes."
These voices are alive and audible and bring the characters into the room with us as if we're hoisting a pint with them. This immediacy is hilarious when John's drunken father makes a scene in a restaurant:
"All I wanted," rumbled the father, "was a good dry chip. That's all I wanted. What do they bring me? Potato wedges! What the Jesus? Greasy old potato wedges with some kind of crap sprinkled all over them. That's not chips. I asked for chips. I just wanted a good dry chip!"
But in these stories there is only a hair's-breadth distance between humor and horror. John and Bethany see his father stumbling along the beach, blind drunk: "They saw him first, walking with great clomps, his arms stretched out in front of him like Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Bethany remembered hearing that, in Frankenstein, Boris Karloff had stretched out his arms before him like that because the filmmaker had at first wanted to have the monster be blind. The problem was that this was what John's father looked like, coming towards them: a frightened, blind monstrosity."
In "Jesus Christ, Murdeena," the title character, still living with her parents, has just been fired from the Busy Burger for making the wrong change. The townsfolk express their disapproval when Murdeena begins to do something unheard-of:
'Who goes for walks?' points out Margaret-Ann. She's right, too. Nobody goes for walks. The only people who go for walks are old women and men who have been told by their doctors that they have to get more exercise. You can see them, taking their turns around the block every night after supper, looking none too pleased.
Murdeena's walks are irritating enough, but when she begins walking around in her bare feet and calling herself the reincarnation of Jesus, "the Way and the Light," people around her are frankly annoyed. "First of all, the arrogance. It is just plain arrogant to walk around thinking you are 'the end-all and be-all', as Margaret-Ann insisted on putting it." It never occurs to anyone that Murdeena has slipped her moorings, perhaps driven over the edge by small-town boredom. Only the reader is let in on the (very dark) joke.
Perhaps the strongest entry in this superbly written collection is "In Disguise as the Sky," a story set in Vancouver with deep roots on Vancouver Island. A young single woman who teaches English as a second language keenly notices the confusion and adjustment problems of her multicultural students, perhaps because they echo her own dire loneliness and alienation. When her relentlessly cheerful but deeply alcoholic mother comes to visit, we sense the unexpressed anger and disappointment between them as she aggressively pushes her own concept of happiness on her daughter. The telephone rings and Mother answers:
'It's a boy!' she declares, like someone has just given birth. 'He says his name is Sandy! What a nice name!'
No one expresses the depths of family wounds more eloquently than Coady and this particular story is almost surgical in its delicate probings of the layers of pain. Coady implies a tragedy around the main character's brother, never fully spelling it out but leaving us to fill in the gaps. This kind of understatement reveals a great deal of skill, not to mention respect for her readers, a rare and valuable trait in any writer but even more unexpected in someone still in her twenties.
But this is obviously a full-blown talent who pays careful attention to getting the details exactly right: "The road rose and sunk like a sea serpent's tail," she writes. And then there is this one: "Cigarettes seem to have given him all the character that is in his face." A kitchen table has an "innocent bechickened tablecloth." And at a wake for a dead grandfather, "There were relatives like most people had flies in the summer."
Coady's heavenly, hellish portrayals of angry, blustering men and beaten-down women, her faithful reproduction of all the bickering, bantering and circular arguments of a family would be almost too realistic to endure if it weren't for the humor ("That Christer!") and a certain underlying tenderness. There is a kind of love that bleeds through between the words which is impossible to analyze. Coady has a deeper-than-intellectual understanding of human ambiguity which resonates in her audience as a sense of recognition. We see the people we love in these flawed, stumbling souls and in certain moments, full of the shock of great poetry, we can even see ourselves. | July 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.