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March 13, 2011

Canada Reads Independently 5: Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady

There were two stories in Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind that ended so unsatisfyingly that I was able to perfectly understand the sentiment of those people who say they don’t like reading short stories. I like stories that are a kernel of a bigger idea, stories which (however ambiguously) contain all the answers to any questions about what happened before or what’s going to happen next, but one of these ended with a boy about to descend down a slope whose precariousness may or may not kill him. I mean, it’s a testament to the story that I cared so much either way, but still, I thought, come on now

But it is a testament to this book’s all-round wonderfulness that it was these two stories that were linked to stories that came later in the collection, stories that answered my questions about precarious slopes, and invested their characters with whole other dimensions. And then the other stories, the ones that stood on their own– they stood so well, so perfectly contained and yet entirely expansive.

It is also a testament to this book’s all-round wonderfulness and alleged funniness that it met my personal funniness benchmark, which is that I was compelled to read two pages of it to my husband beside me in bed while I laughed so hard that tears ran down my cheeks. This was from “In Disguise as the Sky”, a story that otherwise was not particularly funny, but no matter. It was the part about “day-cake”, and what “muffin” means, and “the sudden appearence of a tall woman with large breasts screaming ‘muffin'”.

A woman who has just met her fiance’s brawling, sprawling family and is now travelling with them through Cape Breton on a road-trip gets out of the car at one point and looks out at the ocean: “She didn’t know if this was beautiful or not”. Which is the kind of response a reader will have to these stories, with their moments of tenderness amidst ugliness, humour and desparation, their ribald gentility. A character like Cookie Sloane, a cross-eyed, drunken, lumbering thug, and how he managed to make the line, “I’m a known snatch-sniffer” kind of charming. When he smiles with his dirty teeth, and said, “God love ya, dear!” and I kind of wanted to jump his cross-eyed bones. I’m really not sure if Cookie is beautiful, but Coady makes me understand why Bess thinks that he is.

I was fairly sure I was going to love this book, which surely benefited from being championed by the exuberant Sheree Fitch whose exuberance was entirely justified– it was a pleasure to read this book from start to finish. Many of these stories are concerned with inhabitants of rural communities who have disgraced themselves and find shame within and without (or sometimes not at all with the former, as in the case of “Jesus Christ, Murdeena” who begins to walk through the town barefoot and convinced that she’s the second-coming). Sometimes these communities are seen from the outside as in the title story, the girl who can’t decide what is beautiful, and ends up with a split lip and a broken tooth after an elbow in the mouth from her future sister-in-law. In another, a woman returns after years away and numerous accomplishments racked up, and finds the past is either inescapable, or getting away from her so quickly she hasn’t even noticed it’s gone. In “Look, And Pass On” , a man “from away” becomes involved with a woman whose “wholesome sexiness” belies a darker past (and a terrible pair of underpants)– everything under these simple surfaces is always more complicated than it seems.

These are sad stories, but most funny stories are sad underneath (and this is the case with every other book I’ve encountered this year for Canada Reads Independently, except the Mavis Gallant, but only because she wasn’t funny). And underneath the funny, and underneath the sad, there is ballast here, stories rooted in place, in character, and emotion. They were so realized that their form was entirely secondary, and I could devour these one after the other. There wasn’t sameness, but this collection was a readable book, and I haven’t devoured any other of the Canada Reads Independently picks quite like it. And so this is my top pick, a book like this the whole point of the exercise, because it’s out of print even. When else was I going to read it? But now I am just so terribly glad that I did.

As I reflect upon all five books, Coady’s is the least fragmented of the bunch. Though a collections of stories like Gallant’s, it doesn’t play the games the three novels played with fact and fiction, truth and lies. And though I love these kind of games, I do wonder if they’re redundant sometimes when we’re reading fiction after all. If in accepting that I’m reading a story, I’ve already leapt through those hoops of what is real, and what is art, what is artifice, and the problem of fictional realities. The questions these stories ask are clever, but it is the rootedness of Coady’s stories that will stay with me, I think– the ballast. Her characters walk on ground that seems as solid as earth, and something quite like life plays out upon it.

1) Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady

2) Still Life With June by Darren Greer

3) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

4) Home Truths by Mavis Gallant

5) Be Good by Stacey May Fowles

3 thoughts on “Canada Reads Independently 5: Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady”

  1. alexis says:

    One of the things that amazed me about this book was that it was published when Coady was just 28. It’s an extremely wise collection.

    (Also, thank you to the person who is defending Still Life with June. I just finished it and really enjoyed it.)

  2. m says:

    I think Lynn Coady is brilliant and I don’t understand why she’s not more celebrated. Is it because she’s funny? Maybe. I don’t understand how fame and celebration works in Canlit. But I am thrilled that you loved this book as much as you did and I know I’m very much looking forward to snagging her new novel in the fall.

  3. “She didn’t know if this was beautiful or not”.

    Oh, that’s a great quote: and perfectly summarizes a lot of other moments in the collection. It also offers an interesting angle to the knot of emotions at the end of that particular story (which was one of my favourites too).

    I’ve been picking up copies of Lynn Coady’s books for years — sure that I’d enjoy them — but this is the first I’ve read: thanks for the encouragement!

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