This brilliant collection of short stories by Canadian writer Lynn Coady is her second, and it comes fairly quickly on the heels of her bestselling fourth novel The Antagonist, published in 2011.
While The Antagonist unfolded as a sustained, affectionate portrait of its main characters -- with long memories and messed-up relationships intricately conveyed through a one-way email harangue -- each of the eight tales in Hellgoing keeps its characters at a distance.
Some of them emerge simply as the authors of text messages in a protagonist's cellphone, vibrating with information and suffering. "Unfortunately it looks like --" writes one character to another about their father's heart surgery, before the latter stops reading it and "puts her phone away."
We learn nothing thereafter, cruelly left wondering about the man "who is having his heart taken out" and about the daughter who is slowly coming unhinged.
It's all rather sadistic, and Coady seems to know it. Just when she hooks you on the piercing details of her compelling prose, she leaves you hanging and cuts to the next story.
And you stumble along, adjusting to the pain. In a sly nod to her style, she places a tale about a sadomasochistic relationship at approximately the midpoint of the collection.
Here, a loving couple fashions a kinky room in their basement (a.k.a. Satan's workshop), one that features all manner of hooks and straps. Whenever guests pay a visit, the couple has to hide everything, including the Catholic pew that functions as "a kind of sicko kneeling structure."
The tales are brief and they do not shed light on one another. The story about the anorexic girl, whose only sustenance in days is a communion wafer, has nothing to do with the one about the cougar mauling campers on Vancouver Island. Yet, communicating this disconnection is part of the collection's overall purpose.
Hellgoing is about all the forms of contact we've devised -- from telephones, letters, emails, text-messages, to prayers, poems and spankings -- and all of the reaching out they both inspire and thwart. Maybe the title itself is a message Coady, as author of these tales, is probably going to hell for profaning Catholicism as she does.
The opening story closes with an image of Guglielmo Marconi on Signal Hill, just before he receives the first message transmitted wirelessly from across the Atlantic Ocean.
Coady has crafted sparkling themes in between the lines here. Messages are being sent from one tale to the next, even if it takes a while to figure them out. Consider why, for instance, the last story is titled Mr. Hope and why Mr. Hope wants his students to define the meaning of love, as he yells -- in all caps -- "LOVE IS NOT WHEN YOU HOLD A PUPPY!"
Born and raised in Cape Breton, the site and setting of her debut novel, Strange Heaven, Coady currently resides in Edmonton. The skies and seasons of the Prairies make their way into Hellgoing, surrounding the characters with such cold and beauty that they rival the icebergs of the East Coast.
"Then spring happened," Coady writes in Natural Elements, one of Hellgoing's prairie winter tales, "the way it sometimes does in extreme climates. That is, it broke wildly over the city like a piñata."
It is a perfect simile, filled with colour and surprise. It also indicates what Coady repeatedly contemplates in her fiction: how strange it is that some things have to be beaten or broken open in order for their glory to be to released.
Dana Medoro is a professor of English at the University of Manitoba.