Posted by Lee | Filed under News
The Man Game: Lee Henderson Interview
by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer
Lee Henderson’s debut novel, The Man Game, is a romp and a face-off in olde Vancouver. There is racism, there is opium, there are pretty entrepreneurs, a paraplegic (train stunt), saloons, brothels, and, yes, lumberjacks. There are fist-fights, bravado and dance routines; there is (discretion is advised here) a great deal of nudity. There is, in short, nothing like The Man Game. Your Fall book season will truly be incomplete without having read it.
Award winning author Lee Henderson and Bookninja’s Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer wrestled into the book and around it in this interview. Please enjoy.
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Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer: I read The Man Game manically, over a few days. And these were my gut responses as I read: What the? Wha-? Is Lee Henderson mad? Where did this all come from?
So, I guess: What the? Wha-? Are you mad? Where did this book come from?
Lee Henderson: The culture of woodsmen, day labourers, stevedores, fisherman, and miners in the 1800s was rough. To write convincingly about that pioneering scene, I wanted to use language that was good for readers today. So I dialed my ear to those voices in contemporary Vancouver — listening to the guys argue and fight on the scaffolding as they reclad the leaky condo I was renting, transcribing bar fights as they escalated, talking with the longshoremen and misfits who aspired to be professional wrestlers, hanging out with anarchist punks and noise musicians…I was listening for the sounds of early Vancouver in today’s city. I discovered it was all around me.
Anger is a part of this book because it is human. Hate is a part of this book, too. These are awfully difficult emotions to write about, but I had to be responsible to the dark history of Vancouver, and so I had to write about anger in detail, anger and hate and fear caused our race riots.
Kathryn: I like this transparency with regard to language usage, Lee; it gives the novel a playfulness in the sense that one doesn’t recognize the vernacular as “historical” as one might expect from a novel set in the 1800s, but rather as simply bawdy, and raw, and, masculine, as one would expect in what must have been the roughness of early Canadian cities. Was that subversion pointed? Are you addressing or checking something in a readerly expectation when it comes to the historical novel?
Lee: What I like about novels-as a reader-is that they are a very solitary, internal experience, and what I also like about novels-as a writer-is that the tradition is very porous and flexible. There are so many ways to write a novel that readers are by and large very adaptable. So I knew going in that no matter how hard I needled and stretched the historical record, another novel before mine had blasted and bent it even further. I wanted to challenge my own expectations about the historical novel as much as anything. What I valued in writing historical fiction was the opportunity to redress past events we’ve yet to reconcile within our present-day selves. And that idea, along with the man game itself, and what this sport meant to me as an image and as a concept and as an invention, and that central metaphor is what kept me motivated for as long as it took to render the history in a language that I liked and eventually complete the book.
Kathryn: For the reader’s benefit, let me quote:
You fat moose, I don’t want to arm wrestle you. I don’t even want to touch you.
From a seat along the wall beneath a framed Ontario plantation diorama, complete with hunched Negroes, a lowly chinless navvy perked up and said: A dollar on Pisk.
A fucking dollar on Pisk? roared Daggett. You call out a fucking dollar? I’m going to shove that silver so far up your rear you’ll use it for a cap on your buck tooth, you rabbit-shit. (p. 66)
Last Sunday Toronto had found a Chinaman businessman from San Francisco waiting for him at the postal drop-off in New West’ wanting a guide to Vancouver. The Chinaman was something to look at. Inside his fat smile, his dentistry was all gold nuggets. His eyes were blood-misted. He dressed like a Mexican banker, complete with the black and yellow fingernails and six-shooter holstered across his chest. Their ivory handles were inlaid with jade cobras. He wore Shanghai boots. Along the way, they witnessed the sight of three men beside a disemboweled grizzly at the side of the road. A fourth man was inside the animal dumping out the intestines. Whitemen, gone mad. When the men saw Toronto and the Chinamen, they all took to their feet. The one man inside the guts lurched out and, wielding a cleaver, chased them down the road for miles, his naked erection covered in bear blood. (p. 217)
We are clearly in no sepia-toned past. The Man Game is filled with yearning characters who, for various reasons, are unfulfilled. If this is the bedrock of Vancouver itself, and as you say you wanted to redress a past within our present-day selves, the thrust of this directs to a rather bleak current Vancouver. One of your characters suggests that if the immigrancy continues, we’ll all be Chinamen eventually. What of the overt racism in The Man Game? The defined and pointed rejection and fear of the other, the immigrant? I wondered too, if the quotes heading each chapter are meant to provide hints to something of this nature? The quotes are often out-of-time, as in Harold Pinter and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari quotes contextualizing early Vancouver. Is this to suggest a reciprocity, a dialogue between past and present and, if so, how do you see this as useful?
Lee: The man game needed an opponent, something grossly real, something that renders us senseless and is apparently invincible. I couldn’t flinch from the reality of the racism that scorches through Vancouver’s history, not when prejudice defines so much of our lives today. A lot of the phobic sentiments you see played out in the daily newspapers back then, the stereotyped cartoon caricatures, fear-mongering news headlines, and bigoted editorials, have contemporary corollaries. As a writer, I had to recreate the transformation of language into physical action, to chart a path from rhetoric to the riot, mapping out all the warning signs. That was unpleasant but felt useful.
Kathryn: The man game is a viscerally experienced (at least by this reader) admixture of theatre, dance, wrestling, and brawl. To the narrative, it provides a kind of portal between past and present (although, I sometimes wondered whether the rendered present in the novel wasn’t also shifting artistically toward a perceived future). Why a fight, Lee? Also, how did the man game manifest for you, the writer? I hear there was some Youtube research!
Lee: I really love YouTube. Something like ten million hours of footage are uploaded to YouTube every second? Crazy. YouTube’s project is to fold the entire history of visual media into the present-day by making all things available all the time. Living in a borderless, autonomous, and asynchronous history of entertainment feels like a very contemporary issue for us to reckon with as artists. And history as undifferentiated from the present-day was an idea I was already fidgeting with in my book, so when YouTube came along I embraced it completely. The first thing I remember seeing on YouTube was that incredible ping pong rally, which goes from a basic table tennis tournament to a full-fledged dance recital by the end, and so far as I can tell, isn’t a staged event.
I started my own channel a few years ago and I play around with uploading videos using my second-hand two megapixel Nikon and make playlists for live events. I’ve already maxed out my allowed favorites at 650, and constantly have to whittle down to add new ones, but I’ve also found a way to bump over 650 if I have to. I made a playlist of “dance craze” videos for the Toronto launch of The Man Game which we projected on a big screen at the Gladstone Hotel. That playlist saved me from paralysing stage-fright! I just imagined I was back at home at my computer, showing friends some unusual dance and combat styles that inspired me in the writing, and how they all combined to make up the gravity-defyingmoves, comedic violence, cultural irony, twisted language, and DIY public spirit of the man game. I also loaded up some Peanut Butter Jelly Time in Iraq videos that show dance as a form of parodic insubordination by US troops in the current Iraq war. The creative uses for YouTube are just beginning to be discovered. I was inspired to use YouTube for the book launch by my friend the sound artist Ken Roux, who came up with the concept for a Video Party Dance this summer, a music night we’ve hosted at a couple different venues in town, using two laptops with wifi connection and a video mixing board to project continuous live loading YouTube videos like a DJ would with records, and we play all the most obscureand fascinating danceable videos we can find on the site.
I just learned that David Foster Wallace committed suicide Friday night, about twenty-four hours ago. A tragic absurdity. His work was gripped with the fever of self-annihilation, the funniness made it seem like he had it under control. I first read his work in 1994, the story Girl With Curious Hair appeared in an anthology I bought. I read it over and over. I was obsessed with who this author was, apparently “working on something long,” it said in his bio. All I could find for another year was his first novel Broom of the System, which only hinted at what he’d achieved in that one story. The next summer I met the writer Zsuzsi Gartner, another early fan, she was also sure that he was a genius. I borrowed her copy of the story collection-she owned it!-and a photocopy of her photocopy of the state fair essay in Harper’s. This is all pre-Internet, pre-E-mail. I bought Infinite Jest the first day it came out, a kind of anticipation I normally only reserved for new music. I’ve read his books ever since with the same agog excitement that colour commentators reserve for tennis pro Roger Federer, another virtuoso talent, and the subject of a classic Wallace essay. DFW was a total genius, the best black humorist in the US, he probed the deepest. I take heart in knowing that DFW is finally talking with Wittgenstein now. RIP DFW
Kathryn: Yes, it is a terribly sad event. I keep thinking what pain he must have been in, and also, as you suggest, how the writing could not compensate that pain. On a personal level, I find that a scary notion.
Lee, I just took some time to look through the YouTube videos, including the Federer one, and they accumulate in this peculiar way, piling up in whatever compartment in the brain experiences awe. The man game is devised by a female character, who herself is the subject of much awe in your early Vancouver. Where do you suppose these manly dance crazes (Capoiera, break dance, staged wrestling) originate in the mind? What is the purpose of a man game? Is it bravado manifested as game? Is it sexual flaunt? Channeled frustration?
Lee: The Man Game is a bit of everything, yeah, as a street performance, like a much more dangerous form of busking. The game or sport or dance or routine, as the man game’s variously seen by folks in the story, is a fiction at heart. The man game doesn’t exist, it only represents.
Kathryn: So its meaning depends on who’s interpreting?
Lee: Never trust the artist, trust the tale, said DH Lawrence. And I like to trust the tale, too. I take the theme and throw myself at it. Meaning and value is tough to talk about, but I assume it comes from a combination of my efforts and the readers’. I saw the man game in opposition to a team of toughs: prejudice, history, identity. This game trips up the action of the standard western drama, wrecking the set and scaring the actors. I wanted to press history for its literary qualities rather than praise and uphold the veracity of the narrative. I wanted something nakedly fictional that would demand history disrobe, too. History is a main adversary in the book, and physicality and psychology were allies. I wanted the book to raise all those questions you asked about the impulse to dance and compete, the bravado of fisticuffs, the sex and the frustration of bachelordom, and this novel was my response to those questions. I worked to make the language metabolically and hypertonically extreme.
Kathryn: Well, you succeeded. Would you speak about Toronto, the Snauq outcast who essentially enables Molly Erwagen, the creator of the game, and who seems to live on the pastries of Calabi & Yau, two Chinamen who are almost integrated by virtue of their ability to bake ambrosial, some might say extradimensional, pastries (which I assume look something like this.)? You are up to some hijinks, Mr Henderson?
Lee: To me, I guess I imagined Toronto as the heart of Vancouver. He’s Snauq, the name of the Coast Salish who lived where Granville Island is now. He loves his home, he doesn’t want to leave for the life of him. But his life is in danger. For various reasons, Toronto is a tragic outcast in Vancouver. He’s also the mail delivery guy. He wagons Vancouver’s mail back and forth from the closest city. That’s how he meets Sammy and Molly as they arrive on train from Toronto and he basically volunteers to aid this man and be his ward, taking care of this man who is paralysed from the neck down. The pastries are an impossible dough-based mouth-watering sugary chocolate blackberry cream cheese confection that look like that, yes, like a multidimensional cruller. I get the impression that every city has at least one super special pastry spot, the one you take visitors from out of town to, the must-try insider tip you’re afraid will get too popular because with greater demand maybe the quality might suffer and that must never happen. In this book’s Vancouver that place is Calabi&Yau Bakeshoppe.
Kathryn: Lee, there is a narcotic haze affecting several of your characters, especially those in power. Opium/laudanum plays acts as a kind of hinge between the Chinese and the European colonialists. I mention this as preamble to my next question, as I wonder whether it connects: what of that racism, the anger that permeates your early Vancouver?
Also, going outside the text here, do you think sport can serve to codify anger, and perhaps provide an outlet for strong negative emotion, one that society will permit, and even celebrate?
Lee: I decided to interpret those days back in 1886 based on what I knew about Vancouver now. Addiction is a theme in the book, it’s an issue in Vancouver. The crisis is probably Vancouver’s best opportunity to leave a lasting positive legacy — if we can find a way to manage drug addiction responsibly and fairly, and not simply chute the worst victims out to the suburbs in time for the Olympics, we’ll have done more than most host cities. Unfortunately, politics, economics, and labour issues all intervene heavily into health care when it comes to addiction, and the criminal economy that sustains addicts is also clearly very fucking powerful. Afghanistan’s economy could be sustained by opium export alone, but there are better reasons than fear of vice to hold that country back from achieving any kind of prosperity. Back in 1886, legal opium manufactured mainly for laudanum was one of the most profitable businesses for the Chinese population in Vancouver, until the drug was outlawed in 1908 after then Minister of Labour Mackenzie King visited Vancouver and was given a tour of Chinatown. PM Mackenzie King helped turn opium into a synonym for Sinophobia. Visions of a wealthy, powerful, BC-based, Chinese pharmaceutical industry was way too much for Ottawa to handle. Immigration is brutally twined with a nation’s economy. It is never a nice clean arrangement. Maybe the man game was meant as something of an impossible sacrifice that a British Columbian man should make to his immigrant brother. I think you’re right that the man game is a place where anger and prejudice can be resolved, yes, but without anyone under the mistaken belief that after a game’s been won anger and fear go away to never return.
Kathryn: With the comment you made earlier about your responsibility to press history rather than “the veracity of the narrative,” I just reread the chapter quotes, which range from ones by René Girard (When unappeased, violence seeks and always finds a surrogate victim) to Sgt Jim Baker (Taliban, you are all cowardly dogs. You allowed your fighters to be laid down facing west and burned. You are too scared to retrieve their bodies. This just proves you are the lady boys we always believed you to be.). I read the quotes, this time, in the way one flips through a flip book, and discovers an animation. I hadn’t seen it initially, and I am not sure it was intentional, but they accrete in a way that has the opposite effect of most internal quotes: they direct outward, globally, and shift the entire meaning of the main text, politicizing it, in a way that argues, again against narrative. This is very intriguing in an ‘historical’ novel, where the intention is usually to resolve the past. You aren’t doing that at all, are you?
Lee: Yes, that was the plan, for sure. I didn’t want to resolve the past. I wanted to flesh it out in real contemporary terms and then excoriate it. I was inconsiderate to the past. I couldn’t in good conscience protect history under a bell jar and study it like we’ve evolved from those days. Because that’s not the case. I wanted to torture and terrorize history until I finally got it to reveal the indeterminate truth.
Kathryn: Thank you for this, Lee.
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Lee Henderson is the author of the award-winning short story collection The Broken Record Technique and the novel The Man Game (2008 Finalist for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize). He is a contributing editor for the arts magazine Border Crossings in Canada and Contemporary magazine in the UK. His short story “Conjugation” was nominated for the 2006 Journey Prize. www.leehenderson.com
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of the short story collection Way Up (3rd prize Danuta Gleed Award) the novel, The Nettle Spinner (shortlisted for the 2005 Books in Canada/Amazon.ca First Novel Award). A new novel, Perfecting, is forthcoming in Spring 2009. She is the magazine editor for Bookninja.com, and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Kathryn’s review work has appeared in many newspapers and journals, including The Globe and Mail and The San Francisco Chronicle. www.kathrynkuitenbrouwer.com
2 Responses to “Bookninja Qs The Man Game”
Jer Thorp Says:
November 23rd, 2008 at 7:34 pm
Great interview, Lee.
I just found this site. After finishing the novel a few weeks ago I’ve been wandering the neighbourhood (Strathcona) half expecting, half fearing Furry & Dagget to come stumbling out of a doorway.
I very much enjoyed your book. Thank-you.
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