Moodyville on the Man Game

Thanks to Caroline Skelton at the North Shore News for the nice profile piece! It runs under the slow-news-day headline: Rules of The Man Game hard to pin down. I’ll copy-paste the piece and put it under the perforated fold line because I have no idea how long things stay on the weird website system…

Dateline: Friday » August 29 » 2008


Rules of The Man Game hard to pin down

Caroline Skelton
Special To North Shore News

Friday, August 29, 2008

by Lee Henderson

(Viking Canada, August).

It took nine years for Lee Henderson to translate the teeming frontier world in his head into a book.

A long stint for 500 pages, perhaps, but not surprising considering the rough landscape of early Vancouver that comes to life in The Man Game: a world inhabited by more than 30 characters — loggers, prostitutes, opium addicts, bakers and Vaudeville actresses — and fixated with a complex sport brewed in the depths of Henderson’s imagination.

In the tradition of his enigmatic collection of short stories, The Broken Record Technique, Henderson’s muscular first novel is a book so different from its shelfmates, even its author acknowledges it to be “very strange.”

The story begins in Vancouver circa 1886, when a young couple arrives on the day a monumental fire guts the city. In the still-smoldering ruins, the irrepressible Molly, a veteran of European music halls, catches hold of the town’s feral masculinity and harnesses it into a competition — the man game — that soon changes the course of the city’s history.

Meanwhile, in a parallel plotline taking place in today’s East Vancouver, a young man and the woman he loves are discovering that Molly Erwagen’s game of swarthiness and style is far from over.

In the course of those nine years of writing, Henderson acknowledges there were some bad times. Like the time, four years in, when he threw out nearly everything he’d written.

“In 2003, by that point I’d written about 250 pages, and I realized that this story was just beginning, and at 250 pages I’d just kind of reached what should have probably happened in the first 30 pages,” he says. “I kind of lay in bed thinking I was either going to puke up a lung or, you know, jump out a window.”

Thankfully, he did neither. Rather, he deleted almost all of it and started again. (After that, he notes, things went much better.)

Henderson says he chose the complex plot as a challenge, hoping to break from contemporary writing with a story that engaged with Vancouver’s history. Real details of the city’s wild past shows up in the story — from the Great Vancouver Fire that all but leveled the city in June 1886, to John Clough, a one-armed drunk who, legend has it, spent so much time in jail they made him warden (“I like that kind of anarchistic decision-making they were doing back then,” says Henderson).

But The Man Game isn’t so much historical fiction as it is a contemporary story with a historical setting.

“Historical novels . . . they all want to relate to the contemporary world, but it’s sometimes very difficult when the author is trying to create an image of the past that is totally committed,” says Henderson.

His is more a marriage of history and speculation; frontier Vancouver is a diving board, “and the rest of it’s just a big pool of my own making and my own imagination.”

Though much has changed in 120 years, the Vancouver of Henderson’s imagination has much in common with the city today — and not just in wild and wooly charm. At the time, race riots gave expression to a rising fear of the Asian labourers arriving en mass to work on railways and in mills. These days, says Henderson, there is still something of a xenophobic nervousness, particularly as the world turns to watch the Beijing Olympics.

And while loggers are no longer cutting down stands on Georgia Street, the impetus to expand and develop is still alive and well in pre-Olympic Vancouver.

Still here, too, is the desire to pummel one’s fellow man — a desire that’s central to The Man Game. Throughout the novel, the exact purpose or rules of the game itself remain hard to pin down, the whole competition more evocative than literal.

“That’s maybe the thing I liked most about it, why I kept writing the book, was because I had all these different ideas of what the game was, but I still don’t really know what it is,” says Henderson.

Still, there’s lots of fodder for the imagination, including Henderson’s own sketches of the game’s winning “moves,” inspired by the likes of wrestling, ballroom dancing, break dancing, acrobatics and boxing. Most are probably physically impossible, he says, “even if people ever wanted to try (them) . . . I don’t think they really will.”

Then there’s the style of writing in the book itself, which echoes the raw, dangerous game, in which two naked men crush one another gracefully in the middle of a street.

“I was looking for not necessarily the best sentence always — but sometimes the sentence that kind of feels like you just got an elbow in the teeth, or the kind of sentence that feels like you just were thrown head over heels. Or sometimes one that felt like an embrace or a seduction,” says Henderson. “It needed to be really flexible, and absurd as well.”

Not an easy way to write, and not entirely conscious either, he says. “If I had had the choice to write that way, I don’t know if I would — it’s intimidating to be so particular about sentences.”

These days, Henderson is still writing articles for visual arts magazines and the odd short story, but is in no great rush to start another novel. After nine years spent on the last one, he says, “I’m pretty patient.”
© North Shore News 2008

Copyright © 2008 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.
CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.

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