Lee Henderson’s debut novel, The Man Game, opens in Vancouver in 1886, a dirty, bawdy city full of smoke and filth. Enter Molly Erwagen, a performer who has spent most of her life in the circus, recently transposed from out East with her paralyzed husband Samuel. Having nothing else to do but look after him, she finds her attention drifting to two lumberjacks, Litz and Pisk. They’re immersed in the underground “man game,” a brutal, poetic form of wrestling, where men strip naked and pulverize each other. She finds in them the same sense of desperation she feels and is drawn into their world of performative violence.
Henderson describes “the man game” as a mix of “ballroom dancing, karate, breakdancing and pro wrestling.” The novel is accompanied by a series of comedic illustrations describing the moves the fighters use (i.e., the Banger — “A cocksure move on the part a both players, who unwisely confuse the hardness a the brainpan with the durability a the flesh”). It’s a strange hook to build a novel on — operatic, homoerotic wrestling — and it all began with these little cartoons Henderson drew for fellow students while in university. “They were funny and irreverent, cartoonish, naked men,” he says. “When I was in school, all of these ideas about gender were up for grabs — how gender was created, and how identity has become so fractured. When writing The Man Game, I had this feeling that in each gender there is this negative core. In men, this tendency towards animalistic violence and a fear of the other. I wanted to strip men down to that and study it.
“It is inevitable to say it, but there is an eroticization of sportsmanship,” he adds. “In a metaphorical way, it’s replacing a certain sexual impulse with a competitive one — the desire to be on top.” In order to better capture the mechanics of wrestling, Henderson immersed himself in the world of amateur wrestling. “There are these longshoremen, dock workers, who come out at night wearing pink tights and makeup and just beat the shit out of each other in some small Legion in New Westminster.”
The Man Game is a historical novel like no other — a curious, challenging blend of tongue-twisting Pynchon and warped Canadian pastoralia. The language is a rowdy mix of anachronistic English and rap lyrics (“these folks didn’t have soaped clean mouths,” says Henderson). Its skewering of historical fiction, particularly of the usual staid Canadian kind, is so bizarre, hilarious and satirical, it reads like an assassination. “I wouldn’t say ‘assassination,’ but I appreciate that,” says Henderson. “I wanted to question the purpose of the historical novel. I really felt that there was something missing from those books. They assume history is fact, when it’s really a set of revised opinions of the archived record. The politics of arts and culture — these things warp history.”
Vancouver is central to the novel, a character of brooding, wheezing intensity. However, when Henderson first began writing, it wasn’t going to be that way. “I was going to set it in old New York,” he says. “But I realized, ‘Why am I in a Vancouver library learning about this?’ I thought I would be much better off creatively to turn my head to my own city. There are so many interesting elements there — the great fire of 1886 and issues around labour and industry. Vancouver has this anarchistic edge, it provides great freedom for artists and others. Back then, it was more pronounced. I saw a history parallel to today — the struggles with drug addiction and immigration.”
The grand, kaleidoscopic scope of the book took Henderson nearly 10 years to write. “I’ve spent the last few years paring it down, compacting the manuscript. I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t slow and sludgy; I wanted to make it feel like you were racing through it. There were times when my nerves got the best of me, but I never got bored.
“When I finished, it was like a 10-ton weight came off of me,” he adds. “It’s gratifying to talk to people about the book. For so many years it felt like an isolated, private project. Now, let it be out in the world to find friends and make enemies.”