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Lee Henderson's Beloved, Nasty Old Vancouver

Author of 'The Man Game' on his city's terrible infancy, the chimp in us and more.

By Ben Hart, 5 Nov 2008, TheTyee.ca

Lee Henderson

Henderson: ‘Strange folks living in the woods’ Photo is a self-portrait.

  • The Man Game
  • Lee Henderson
  • Penguin (2008)

"We were in search of a history we were sure to mistreat. As if a city would ever store its proudest moments in this dipping cellar. As if we could floss a story from all this mealy worthless scrap." So says Kat, the narrator of Lee Henderson's first novel The Man Game, as he digs through old newspapers and photographs, testimony from another time.

The Man Game exists in two places at once -- past and present-day Vancouver. In the present, Kat and Minna, the woman he desperately loves, follow the hush-hush of rumour to a neighbourhood on the east side of the city, a place utterly foreign to them. "A long-nosed boy sat in a corner of the yard beside a tree," Kat says, describing the place, "one hand inside a black silk top hat, no pants on. That kind of neighbourhood. Poor magic." Kat and Minna trail a crowd to the backyard of a sinking house. There, they witness two men engaged in a kind of burlesque -- a wrestling match, a man game that marries brutal force and artful choreography. After the game, Kat and Minna befriend the players. They are ushered into the house and then shown to the basement. It is here they discover a story as big and as confounding as the city and all its incarnations.

Vancouver is burning when Molly Erwagen and her paralyzed husband, Sammy, arrive from Toronto in 1886. The place is wild. Streams run heavy with blood. Trees are lit matches. The men are ruffians and drunks, addicts and gamblers and cheats. The women are hard, sharp and capable as a crosscut saw. This is Vancouver in its terrible infancy. There's rabble: a labour movement gaining momentum, a race riot brewing. Snakeheads stalk the streets. The city's elder statesmen tunnel like rats to opium dens and gambling parlours and brothels. "The city was already humming a different tune," Henderson writes. "Behind the cedars, firs, anomalous arbutuses, away from the prying eyes of eastern civilization, Vancouver men were safe to grow their hair out, to live and die on instinct alone."

Enter Molly: an industrious and beautiful young woman with a fine ear and a good eye for saleable entertainment. Molly grew up in Europe. Her parents were performers. She spent her youth immersed in vaudevillian spectacle. She is taken by the virility of the city, by its potential. "The men in Vancouver come to participate," she says, "not to watch from the bleachers. The pews are empty. The pulpit is in the street."

Molly enlists two exiled lumberjacks, Litz and Pisk, and invents the man game -- a naked wrestling that calls upon participants to seduce their opponents with dance, to invoke magic, to float and punch and kick and flip. Vancouverites are engrossed by the game. They pour their energy, their faith, their meager fortunes into it. The man game becomes the core of the place, the very heart of it.

Henderson not only creates an expansive story for Vancouver, he gives it a brilliant tongue. He blends frontier Canadian and Chinook to create a dialect that belongs to this place alone. You get a sense, reading the novel, that this dialect is the only one capable of properly telling the story.

The Man Game is a declaration, not of historical fact but of the truth of a place, of its magic and its people. The novel is part love letter. Henderson writes, "The spirit of Vancouver is goddamn invincible…. Vancouver's men were boisterous and thick-skinned. They cursed each other out of respect. Vancouver wasn't just a city; it was a kind of fate, a destiny rock for dreams that needed ledges." The novel is also an indictment of a place that insists upon forgetting its past, insists upon snuffing out its identity. "I wanted a set of principles like the stars that I could look up to and see, fear and interpret," Kat says near the end of the book. "Stars were scarce in my world. I lived in a city surrounded by purple clouds."

I meet Lee Henderson in a bar with no windows. There are a few other patrons -- all of them men. There's a record on the player. Discordant squeals interrupt a steady drum beat.

There's something familiar about this place, about these quiet men. You can feel it -- the kind of potential that Molly Erwagen recognizes and exploits in The Man Game. It's only a matter of time. One of these guys -- some bohunk, a total poltroon -- will break his silence and then we'll all be outside, our clothes in a pile at the door, our hands artfully ringing necks.

I look to Lee. He seems perfectly calm, unaffected by the impending ruckus.

So I take another glance around the room. There are only men sitting at the bar. And, yes, the place is full of gut sounds, car crash noise. But these guys aren't out for blood. They are skinny, these men. They have beards that make them look even skinnier. They're no lumberjacks, no man gamers. Not these guys. They're web designers and video artists. They're dobro players. This is Main Street, Vancouver, 2008. This is where I talk to Lee Henderson. Here's what he has to say…

On the same old, different story

"Part of the book is acknowledging the subjectivity of history, the prejudices of history. Our assumption that it is a lesser example of who we are, that civilization has somehow not only changed but improved. It hasn't improved. It's just slightly different. We're still the same beings. We still have the same brains. Nothing's changed in the last hundred years. We're physically the same creatures we've been since the beginning of recorded time. I wanted to question history. What I wanted was to be monogamous and truthful to the idea of fiction and set that in opposition to history."

On historical fiction vs. fictional history

"Why do you want to go back to this particular time? What does it speak about now? You need to make that explicit or the story risks becoming a parlour game. My question with this book wasn't so much: am I writing a historical novel, as am I interrogating the historical novel. It's risky to teach people that history in something scientific and provable when it's so often revised. I like the novelistic approach to history."

On Terminal City

"We're a modern city. We've never been able to create an area to maintain our identity. This city's never stopped changing its entire life. It looks nothing like the place I came to in 1994. It keeps people feeling very happily rootless here. The city has never really considered itself anything other than a port. It's beginning to, though."

On Van Art (or: How to create civic identity)

"I like what Coupland is doing for the city. I like what Michael Turner is doing. There are certain artists and musicians that I identify the city through much better than through our governing body. It's what I admire so much about this city: the kind of artists that are here. [In Vancouver] your only real option if you want to survive is to find ways to live here and have all your professional shit elsewhere. It requires you to have some sense of what's happening elsewhere."

On the 'Cascadia mentality'

"Along this coast, there's still this lingering sense of autonomy from our respective countries. All the way from upper B.C. to northern California. We're really our own entity. The Cascadian mentality—I was really inspired by it. That's why I came here, the difference there is here. Every little spot between Portland and Seattle and here is strange. Strange folks living in the woods."

On the nature of monkey man

"I have a feeling there's an extremely violent core to men, that there's something chimpanzee in us. We need to express ourselves through action. Civilization keeps that in check. But, sometimes, we don't want to be that civilized."

On Macho Man Randy Savage vs. Hulk Hogan; George "The Animal" Steele vs. Jake the Snake (or: How professional wrestling soothes our violent impulses)

"It's theatre playing to the lowest common denominator, to the very base interest which is blood and feuding. It's fantastic, athletic theatre. It's like the world needs allegory, living metaphor for war and conflict. At some point, we're all that character in the wrestling ring and we need that theatre to help us overcome some of our prejudices."

On musical fiction

"I listen to a lot of music when I write. When I think of how to explain what it was I was trying to achieve it was a lot of listening to it, reading it back and listening. In the last couple of months of editing I was able to listen to [the novel] like a piece of music."

On 'The Man Game' (or: Writing a novel is fun)

"You don't know how else to express these thoughts. You try to say them out loud in conversation and you feel like you don't say them right. If only you could spend nine years trying to say them in some other weird way."  [Tyee]

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