This week, Lee Henderson’s first novel, The Man Game, was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust fiction prize, and deservedly so. It is a sprawling, brilliant, playful, heartbreaking, and eminently wise book that considers its world with unusual bravery and purpose. It’s easily one of the very best books I’ve read this year. I caught up with Lee Henderson last month, while he was in Toronto for the launch.
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This is your first novel, but unlike many first books it’s not obviously autobiographical. How did your ideas come together?
I think it still is autobiographical, but more symbolic autobiography. I’ve always been doing drawings, and I always thought it was somehow irreverent to draw naked men, and I’d be in writing classes and you’re supposed to write critiques on people’s stories or poems, and I’d just be drawing little naked men for them. It seemed counterintuitive at the time, so I’m always looking for how to draw stories out of very small obsessions like that. I knew that if it was going to take nine years, at least I’d be entertained while I worked on it. And I just tried to take this idea of the man game and basically use it to craft a book that could talk about the historical novel as a genre within literature, as well as something much more contemporary, integrating and absorbing the information and narrative structures of video games, for instance. I was thinking of this idea of combat or competition as a structural cog to keep the book going. And I was also frustrated by some of the CanLit books—the historical novels—which I felt were too committed to a fidelity of the time, trying to match the era word for word. It’s kind of a parlour trick. Not that I don’t love a lot of the straight historical fiction that’s done, but that’s why I wanted to write a historical novel: it’s a Canadian form in a lot of ways.
It’s the Canadian form. What Canadian books were important to you in this? I kept thinking of Tay John.
I was thinking of books like that for sure. They weren’t really influences, or anti-influences. But they were part of my thinking. That’s my own self-consciousness, thinking about a novel in terms not just of story but its context within literary history. And frustrated by some of the legholds that you get into, the expectations, I still really wanted to embrace that. The best books I looked at were George Bowering’s. Bowering’s Shoot! I had the idea, and then I began to look at some of that work more closely. I really loved Robert Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man.
How did your idea of Vancouver in the book—part historical, part imaginative—come about?
It’s entirely related to the people I spend my time with in Vancouver, and the version of Vancouver that I know, the identity of the city I know. And that drew me to that city—it was always a place for people who weren’t looking to have a career, but be creative. To do things that hadn’t been done yet.
You’ve said that the novel doesn’t build to a huge moment. What surprised me was that it opened with its big moment—the great fire of Vancouver. How did that structure work for you?
I couldn’t get over this image: What if a young couple was coming to town that day, the day it burned to the ground in 1886. And what would it have been like to see the city incinerated in twenty minutes? It was so hot—people were running down the street on fire. I wanted the book to be elemental—fire, water—this raw, naked world, because it’s that elemental thing: once that’s established, the idea of guys stripping down to nothing makes more sense.
It seems plausible…
Plausible, yeah. It’s a hard thing to make plausible. When I started researching this city, it didn’t come as much of a surprise, but it was interesting to note that almost all of the problems the city has now, in terms of development, racial tension, drugs, a red-light zone—all these questions that the city is still posing to itself—how are we going to deal with immigration, labour issues—were all there at the very beginning. To me, this is the story of Vancouver, to just completely obliterate its past every so often. And the Great Fire was the first time it happened. We’ve essentially been repeating that. We incinerate our past in Vancouver all the time.
Violence is obviously a major preoccupation of the book, but it’s always tempered with beauty—the game itself being martial arts tempered with dance. There are these guys who you expect to lodge pickaxes in each other’s heads, and walking among them is Molly Erwagen. This twinning of violence and beauty—what’s their relationship in the book?
There definitely is a relationship. Radically simplified, I feel like there’s love on one side, war on another side, and in between we have these variations on sport and dance that act to distill our impulses toward those two poles, and also to represent them in a situation that’s much safer for the public. It’s so much more satisfying and safer and it releases some of that fear of the other we have when we watch the Olympics in Beijing. I was really interested in the leadup to the Olympics. “It’s going to be the biggest Olympics ever, but…what about their humanitarian record?” There was this incredible fear of Asia coming out through the media, and then the Olympics happen, we see ourselves win a medal, we see them win a medal, and all of this is released. The games become a way for us to buffer ourselves from this bad impulse toward violence. It’s not like the one excludes the other—it’s not like sports could entirely replace war—but just that we really need it. In the same way that Flamenco or Capoeira has a really sexual side to it, to do with love. Right after I came up with the idea for the man game I saw Capoeira for the first time, and then I saw professional wrestling at a local level in Vancouver and interviewed those guys and talked to them. Capoeira people aren’t really my type of people, but the pro wrestlers were really interesting. Really good guys. Imagine, this is like a longshoreman who’s working all day, slugging around weights, whatever, and these guys were getting into barroom brawls, and they realized that they could go to jail or get in the ring. And sure enough, outside the ring they’re not the gentlest, most at ease men. You’re never going to see one of them in a fight, since they get it all out in the ring.
In his review of the book in the Globe, Pasha Malla noted that violence in the book becomes an avenue of release for unrequited love. Which is a point I like, but it overlooks the fact that violence preexisted Molly’s arrival. Is it something baser, then, that’s primal, and can be sublimated, but sometimes isn’t?
Yeah, without Molly around it can’t be sublimated, turned into something more productive. They need that Other to inspire and frighten them. And I think Molly’s main inspiration comes when she sees these lumberjacks need something do to. They go to bars, they fight, and they occasionally kill each other. They need something more than a music hall, a brothel. They need something to love, something to hope for.
So there can be violence with or without love, but it’s best off…
I think that without Molly there, they don’t understand why they’re fighting each other. As soon as they’re able to understand and become conscious of what’s causing them to be so frustrated with each other, so angry with each other. As soon as they become conscious of that through her, they’re able to control it, master it, turn it into something more artful. Whereas before it was misdirected anger.
I think it was a really hard life back then. Guys really did sleep six to a bed. They’d go out to the camp, sleep six to a bed, get up in the morning, work your ass off. You know, it wasn’t an easy life. And they needed something to hope for. The promise was always, when we get this place settled, we can bring our wives in, and turn this into a civilized place.
The idea of gender as something that was so strict and divided was really in question when I was going through school and when I was growing up. This idea of gender was really up for grabs. And I think that part of the male identity got mismanaged during that time, and we got disconnected from the violent core of the male psyche.
One of my favourite parts of the book—what I took to be its core—is the Molly/Sammy relationship. She’s so mobile, always running here or there, and him—I was really drawn to his character as this kind of quiet, kind, still centre of the book. The novel’s about a time of progression, and about the ways men move and women move among them. To have this character who’s so still [Sammy’s a paraplegic], what does that do for you as a writer?
Sammy? Sammy is my soul in the book. He’s the guy. There’s a wormhole between me, Kat, and Sammy. I’m not a physical guy. I’m a brain sitting there. I kept saying to my friends who were out in the park, playing soccer: I feel like the kid practicing violin while everyone’s out having fun. The writer doomed to sit and be trapped in the chair.
Well, then, what’s the difference between writing a novel and bookkeeping [Sammy’s occupation]?
Well that’s the joke, I guess, the bookkeeping. There was a whole other element to Sammy’s character—I think it’s alluded to in the book—he was coming up with an entirely new form of accounting, and I went into a lot more detail in an earlier draft about this bridesmaid system in accounting, where you don’t have any month end, you don’t have a final tally, so you’re always cycling through, in movement. So he was working on an accounting scheme that was in constant flux, but he was totally still. He’s the guy who needs to know the most in the whole world. Furry and Daggett, they need to be less violent. Litz and Pisk need their autonomy back. Sammy needs to grow a whole lot by the end of the book, come to terms with his flaws and his lack, that he doesn’t have to worry about Molly leaving him for whatever reason.
What’s next for you? Are you writing another novel?
I’m just writing short stories right now. I’m writing a couple of stories more like… I’m back to contemporary Vancouver. I guess I’m always interested in this sort of speculative fiction thing. The world, but it’s not the world. I like realism too, but I think that boundary between what’s speculative and realism in literary fiction is totally arbitrary and unreal and everybody should just be willing to take the world as they see it. A writer’s job, it seems to me, is one consciousness talking to another consciousness, one on one essentially. You read the book by yourself, with me there. And why not give all of your consciousness to that—all the possibilities. That’s what I was looking for with this book. Something that was me. And if people like it, that’s cool.
We talked about Canadian fiction, but who are your non-Canadian favourites at the moment?
I’ve been reading Roberto Bolano. Amulet and Distant Star are really, really good. And By Night in Chile, everyone says that’s their favourite, I liked Amulet best. Savage Detectives didn’t grip me. But I felt those three skinny books were amazing. He’s doing something really good in those books, mixing the political history of the time with the literary history he was a part of and creating a really unique version of a Graham Greene spy story. Really interesting. I’ve been reading Joseph Roth this summer, The Tale of the 1002nd Night and Rebellion. In general, when I’m struggling I look to Beckett, or Thomas Bernhard, Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace—a really good early influence for me. When I read the story “Girl with Curious Hair” when I was nineteen or twenty, I thought, “Okay, you can write this way.” He opened a door for me. His stories are so good, overwhelmingly good. I’m always interested to see what he’s doing. [This conversation occurred a few weeks before the tragic news that David Foster Wallace had hanged himself at the age of 46.]
You mentioned a bit ago the idea for The Man Game. Did this one come to you pretty fully formed?
It kind of did, but it’s sort of weird because I had to throw away 250 pages of the book. That’s the problem with not creating a road map in advance. I didn’t know scene to scene what was going to happen, but I knew in 2003 when I threw away most of the book that I’d written that I hadn’t somehow caught the novel I meant to be writing. So when I started again, it was easier, and I wrote seventy five percent of it in two years, after struggling for the previous three years, and then rewriting it for two and half years. I finished the last draft in January.
But the original idea was clear? ‘I’ll write a book about this game?’
Yeah. Game, young woman—it had to be a young woman who invented the game—I knew she was probably Jewish but keeping it to herself, and her husband would be a counterpoint to it, all brain, all intellect. I knew that RH Alexander was going to be who he is. I just didn’t really know scene-to-scene.
When you throw it away, did you map it out for your second try?
Nope. I just tried again.