Hollywood legend has it that Alien was sold on the strength of a one-line pitch: “Jaws in space.” It’s easy to imagine The Man Game, the huge and wondrous debut novel from Lee Henderson, being sold in similar style: “Deadwood in Vancouver.”
Like the now-cancelled HBO show, Henderson’s book is chock full of wily prostitutes, take-no-shit bartenders, waves of Chinese immigrants sent up from San Francisco, and generally fuzzy notions of law and history. Both are also beautifully written, with unlikely amounts of poetry scattered amidst waves and waves of cursing. Instead of drunk, violent cowboys, however, The Man Game has drunk, violent lumberjacks. Instead of spurs, they wear flannel.
Written over nine years, Henderson’s book recounts the imagined history of the “man game” — a sport that’s part Greco-Roman wrestling, part ballroom dancing, part bar brawl — which takes the young Canadian city by storm in 1886. The cast balloons into the dozens, but at the centre are Molly Erwagen and her paralyzed husband Sammy, who arrive in Vancouver just as a massive forest fire threatens to swallow the city whole.
An ex-vaudeville performer and current housewife, Molly senses a business opportunity in the working-class loggers, who have no entertainment available to them aside from the usual opium, whiskey, and prostitutes. Behind her husband’s back, she recruits and trains two disgraced lumberjacks as the game’s first players, and together they set out to bring some culture to the barbaric west.
I recently woke Henderson up while on a retreat as part of the Calgary Writers’ Festival. He spoke to me over the telephone. He didn’t get out of bed.
MH: The Man Game is set in late 19th-century Vancouver, amidst anti-Chinese riots and the great fire of 1886, which nearly destroyed the city the same year it was incorporated. How much of this history did you know before starting the book?
LH: To be quite honest, I knew very little. It was a matter of taking the small bit I did know and just running with it. I knew about the fire, and I knew the city was fairly young. I knew that it had a worthy history, because I’d read the literature that’s come out of it — books like [Sky Lee’s] Disappearing Moon Café and [Wayson Choy’s] Jade Peony. But I didn’t know the real details all that well, and I didn’t quite understand what led to the riots.
MH: The copyright page acknowledges J.S. Matthews, the city’s first archivist, but you’re subverting history as much as retelling it. How faithful have you been to the real facts?
LH: The character John Clough — the one-armed drunk, poundkeeper, lamplighter, and prison warden — is a true figure from history. And R.H. Alexander is a real character, owner and manager of the Hastings Mill. Obviously I took great liberties at the same time. I have a hard time trying to describe when I started to subvert it and when it’s part of real history. To me, the city was the backdrop on a set of a play. It has to be real enough to convince you to watch the play, but no more than that. The purpose of this book wasn’t historical accuracy — it wasn’t to create a document that kept history under a bell jar. It was far more important for me to be interrogating history, questioning it and questioning the role of the fiction writer in history.
MH: That reminds me of the Wikipedia quote that opens one of the chapters — from an entry on Chinook jargon, which is used throughout the book. There’s a typo in the entry, and that seems somehow emblematic of your story: it’s not note-perfect, but there’s something larger being conveyed.
LH: Exactly. I like putting a Wikipedia entry in there. I liked that it was misspelled, too. We all know how Wikipedia is created. For all you know, I wrote that entry.
MH: I should confess that after reading that quote in the book, I went on Wikipedia to see if the typo was actually there. It was, and then I fixed it. Should I have not done that?
LH: [Laughs.] That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do. Now the next interviewer is going to be like, “Why did you put that spelling mistake in there?” and I’ll have to explain myself.
MH: The man game itself is a mix of a bunch of different things, including boxing, wrestling, dancing, as well as some moves that are physically impossible. How do you define it?
LH:Usually I describe it the way you just said, but on another level I thought of it as — and I’m a bit hesitant to say this, because it sounds kind of goofy — a graffiti over history. It’s like when you go down to Gastown in Vancouver. You see these walls that are 110 years old, the oldest walls in the city, and they’re covered in graffiti. You have this sense of a language that’s been put through acrobatics — most people who look at really accomplished graffiti can’t make heads or tails of what letters are there. It’s like a hidden cipher. I don’t want to draw too much of a parallel, but I saw each move of the game as being a letter in a piece of graffiti. Most people would be like, “That’s impossible that’s a letter. I don’t see it at all.” They don’t see the code, the conversation behind it. The language of the game had to be as dazzling, even if it didn’t make any sense.
MH: You started working on the book in 1999, and only finished in January of this year. Can you tell me about the writing process?
LH: I knew I wanted to do the drawings [that accompany descriptions of each new move], so it started with that. I kind of knew what the story was going to be, but I’m not the kind of writer who puts too much planning ahead of the writing itself. The challenge with a historical novel is, first, how much historical stuff did I need? I didn’t know. It was trial and error. Scene to scene, I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I wrote this whole 75-page prologue about Toronto, Sammy and Molly’s First Nations live-in helper. Even when I was writing it, I knew it wouldn’t go in the book. So by the time 2003 rolled around, I had written — not including this prologue — 250 pages. The first man game had just happened, 250 pages in. I looked at it, and thought, “That’s the end of Act I. This book is huge! Drastically huge! No one’s going to want to read this.” I had a night lying in bed, just thinking I was sinking into some kind of abyss of foolishness. So I chucked it — I woke up the next day and started again.
MH: It’s a long, dense, ambitious, historical novel — not something you expect from a first-time novelist. Were there moments where you felt you’d flown too close to the sun?
LH:Yeah, definitely. It’s personal ambition. I wouldn’t say it’s anything other than that. You could take the easy road with a debut, and draw from your own domestic life, growing up and all that — and there are lots of great first novels about that. But that’s never going to be my interest. I felt a certain responsibility to take the novel as an opportunity to discuss the world that I saw around me, and through my own attitudes, with humour thrown into it. The problem with writing is that one minute your little wax wings are melting off, and the next you’re pumping your fists in the air, thinking you’ve won the Stanley Cup. It’s almost minute to minute — grave insecurity, and then ridiculous egomania, one after the other.
Viking Canada, 518 pp, $32, hardcover
(interview originally appeared in SEE Magazine, December 4, 2008)
[UPDATE: An excerpt from the beginning of this interview is blurbed in the paperback edition of The Man Game, in stores September 2009.]