Perhaps the best argument on behalf of religion is that any strict code of moral rectitude will inevitably excite the sexual imagination toward inventive kinkiness. Repressed lust never quite disappears, but rather gets rechannelled in new forms, often shaped by the forces that try to submerge it.
One of the hallmarks of Lynn Coady’s work is her shrewd examination of the underexplored byways of human psychology, including the twisty road that connects a religious upbringing with outré erotic experimentation. In Coady’s new story collection, Hellgoing, we meet Sean and Erin, a couple who enjoy sadomasochistic game-playing in their “basement dungeon.” Sean, we’re told, “bought an old church confessional pew from the antique mall and sanded and stained it, drilled holes and added hooks and straps and turned it into a kind of sicko kneeling structure which Erin, with her Catholic background, loved.”
In a 2012 interview with the website Rabble.ca, Coady confessed that her own Catholic upbringing made it difficult for her to “write about sex.” In Hellgoing, the follow-up to her Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlisted novel The Antagonist, she tackles this problem directly on both fronts by being much more explicit about what her characters do in their beds (or dungeon), but also connecting this erotic content with spiritual concerns.
With her boisterous humour marinated in cynicism and her turbulent, violence-prone characters, Coady is rarely classed as a pious writer. Yet Catholicism is a pervasive presence in her work, the cultural soil she sprang from that still nurtures her imagination. Coady’s habit of giving her characters (often ironic) allegorical names – this collection features a man named Hart as well as a Mr. Hope – also aligns her fiction with a Christian narrative tradition that goes back to The Pilgrim’s Progress and the medieval morality plays.
Coady is fascinated by the fact that the sacred and profane aren’t really opposites, but often parallel each other. In one story, the self-abnegation of a nun is compared to the self-starvation of an anorexic girl. In another tale, lightning striking a plane and an explosion in the night act as primordial reminders of the divine, while missing sex workers offer a parallel to the rapture (a Protestant myth, of course, but still useful for Coady’s narrative purposes). Throughout the book, the promise of sex carries the hint of the ecstatic self-forgetting of the mystics.
Nietzsche once wrote, “We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers.” This would serve as an apt epigraph for Coady’s fiction. By “knowers,” Nietzsche meant scholars, but Coady’s people are knowing in a more modern way: They are smart, cynical, worldly. All they lack is self-knowledge. Coady borrows the moral framework of Catholicism to have a yardstick by which to measure their failure to understand their own motives.
My major reservation about Coady is stylistic. At her best, she writes with a flexible plain style enlivened by sharp phrases. Her attempts to push herself beyond narrative transparency into vivid metaphors are often less than happy. A radio announcer has “a voice like nougat.” An angry man’s “armpits blasted sudden heat.” Spring weather breaks “wildly over the city like a piñata.”
Leaving these rare awkward sentences aside, Coady is a writer who increasingly commands attention and respect. Christian literary critics such as Paul Elie and Randy Boyagoda whine about the spiritual aridity of contemporary literature. Yet if they were willing to concede that the spiritual concerns of Christianity aren’t the exclusive domain of orthodox believers, they would find in Coady a writer who wrestles with deep matters of both the body and soul.
Jeet Heer’s new book, In Love With Art: Françoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman, will be published this fall.