Ever since Original Sin, we humans have had a pretty rough go. Blundering through life under the weight of our downfall has forced us to create meaning for ourselves where meaning is naught. We know where we’re headed, yet it seems we can’t stop trying to change course by assigning phony importance to everything. In Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing, as one of the characters says, “we have to reconcile ourselves.” Hellgoing is a meditation on reconciliation, the reunion between our divided selves that define our humanity. This seed of an idea weaves throughout each story and reveals itself in unique and unexpected ways.
In “Hellgoing, ” Teresa, a Women’s Studies professor, ruminates over the new relationship between herself, her brother, and their father after the death of their mother (whose job it was “to give a shit so the rest of us [didn’t] have to bother…”) Teresa’s brother Ricky unexpectedly fills the gap that their mother left behind, holding the family together and advocating for constant vigilance against “giving up.” Ricky’s belief that creating purpose within the broken family and working actively against giving up is shown in the metaphor of the old family mailbox, with its tell-tale red flag. Even if the flag is down, you check it anyway because you can never be sure. Moreover, you never want to be sure, as that would solemnly signify you’ve conceded your defeat.
In “Dogs in Clothes” Sam treads a dodgy path as she fields texts from her casual lover, wanting to know when they can hook up again; her best friend, offering morale-boosting reassurance that she is not a slut; and her brother giving her minute to minute updates from her father’s heart surgery. All this as she is simultaneously waiting hand and foot on a client, a philosopher making guest appearances around town and who is the poster-child for introspection. So fragmented is her sense of purpose, she loses touch with her dignity, resulting in a fiery blowout.
In “Take This and Eat It”, a nun is given the daunting task of talking some sense into an anorexic girl who refuses to eat in the name of God. Again, Coady skilfully confuses and complicates representations of duality: mind over body, dying over living, faith over food.
It took a while to find the old familiar Coady in Hellgoing and I’m not even completely sure that I found what I expected to find. These stories felt more cinched at the waist, more controlled. Less swearing, at the very least. In a literary sense, Coady is a genius at throwing her readers in a burlap sack and booting them head first out of the passenger door. But in Hellgoing, the kill seems more sophisticated, a slower burn. These stories smoke, they spark, then smolder. And they warrant multiple readings, the hallmark of great writing. I find it satisfying when a writer can so successfully turn our disgusting flaws into something that holds meaning to us, because it’s really only through art that we love to hate ourselves; in reality, our hideousness has no buffer. It takes a book like Hellgoing to give us meaning.