Globe & Mail Reviews The Man Game

Thanks to Pasha Malla for the amazing book review in the Globe this weekend!

Sprawling, innovative, exhilarating

THE MAN GAME By Lee Henderson Viking Canada, 513 pages, $32 It begins with a handshake, a moment of solemnity and ritual before all hell breaks loose: A bizarre, cartoonish competition that combines ballroom dancing, ultimate fighting, wire-work kung fu and bare-knuckle boxing in a gracefully brutal show of, essentially, two men beating the hell out of each other.

This is the titular “man game” at the heart of Lee Henderson’s phenomenally ambitious and artful new novel, a sport stumbled upon by our narrator, Kat, in a present-day Vancouver subdivision and traced to its roots among the city’s lumberjacks, labourers and vaudeville performers of the late 1800s. A previous story collection, The Broken Record Technique, proved Henderson as a master of skewed suburbia, but it is when The Man Game shifts to the past that his skills really shine. The novel’s parallel historical narrative is populated by a Melvillian, grizzled crew who spout a foul-mouthed, distinctly Canadian dialect peppered with “aboots,” “ehs,” and the regional jargon of Chinook, their plebeian lives brightened only by whoring, gambling, drinking, drugs – and violence. Introduced into the squalor of this Deadwood North are Molly and Sammy Erwagen, fresh from Ontario. She is the daughter of vaudeville performers, he an accountant paralyzed from the neck down, and together they arrive in a city ablaze – Vancouver’s Great Fire of 1886 – which reads like the hellish Old West of Cormac McCarthy: “They passed by streams that ran with currents of blood clogged by burnt and disgorged carcasses of domesticated animals that floated down the bubbling current.” Amid the fire, Molly gets her first glimpse of Litz and Pisk, two lumberjacks blamed for starting the conflagration. Facing exile from the camp, the friends are at one another’s throats, all “fists and elbows and knees and the clack of jaws and snapple of gutpunches, shinkicks and broken noses” – a brutishness Molly, with her showperson’s instincts, shrewdly harnesses for the purposes of spectacle. Sequestered deep in the forest, Molly trains Litz and Pisk, and together they develop moves (the Spanish Layover, the Medical Breakthrough, the Banger) footnoted, cleverly, with illustrations adapted from the legendary, Vienna-born theatrical movement coach Litz Pisk’s seminal guide, The Actor and His Body. The man game soon makes its first public appearance, and quickly the entire camp is enthralled, either as spectators, gamblers, coaches or fellow competitors. Bouts are rendered viscerally – “Campbell was on him like a vampire’s mandible, faster than poison, knees clenched against his ears” – but the novel is far more than an exercise in pugilistic prose. Past and present are seamlessly interwoven, as are history and myth, with Henderson’s technical bravado as enviable as his wit, intelligence and heart. While the man game’s homoerotic theatricality nods to early Japanese butoh performances, the novel is less concerned with repressed gay desire than with how violence becomes a proxy for unrequited love. As both the game’s creator and muse, Molly possesses a stranglehold over the men of the camp. “When I saw the game,” a male character tells her, “I felt a kind a passion and fury that nothing has stirred in me since boyhood. I’d a torn my clothes off right then and there for you.” No one can have Molly, not even her paralyzed husband, and so the men play her game, beating one another senseless. This male tendency of displaced ardour transcends time, and Kat’s parallel longing for Minna in the present day similarly drives his interest in the sport. The act of storytelling – the man game having been literally rescued from the archives – becomes a means for Kat of forging camaraderie with the characters of lost history. Many of these are plucked from the archives, such as Hastings Mill manager R. H. Alexander and his head loggers, Daggett and Furry. Others, like Litz and Pisk, and the town bakers, Calabi and Yau, are named referentially. A final layer of characterization involves figures who could have been born into the magic realist worlds of Garcia Marquez or Rushdie, including, cloistered in Wood’s brothel, the mysterious Whore Without a Face. This interplay of fact, fiction and fantasy lends the historical passages a timeless quality, and also speaks to the novel’s larger ideas about what is gained and lost from revisiting the past. Back in the suburban backyard, the man game concluding, Kat observes: “We were in search of a history we were sure to misinterpret.” Disheartening, maybe, but in those misinterpretations something exists that is much more thrilling than merely recapturing the past. While historical revisionism is nothing new to fiction in this country (George Bowering’s Burning Water trod on similar geographic territory), Henderson revels in the unbridled imagination at which many authors attempting similar projects only hint. This is the sort of sprawling, innovative, exhilarating yet quintessentially Canadian novel that many of us have been waiting for. The Man Game is an absolute triumph.

Pasha Malla is the author of The Withdrawal Method.

One Response to “Globe & Mail Reviews The Man Game”

  1. The Man Game Review « The New Unofficial Pasha Malla Resource Center Says:
    September 15th, 2008 at 10:40 am

    […] in reviews Pasha reviewed Lee Henderson’s The Man Game for the Globe & Mail. « Withdrawal Makes […]

Leave a Reply