- Lee Henderson (Author)
The Man Game. Penguin Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Duffy Roberts
I’d like to be able to centre this novel for readers with a summary of its plot, but that’s just not possible. However, The Man Game’s Man Game is half dance, half pugilistic competition, half ritual, half performance, and complex (the halfs exceed the whole). The Man Game’s narrative weaves two stories: a contemporary one where current male Vancouverites are in the process of reclaiming the moves of the game’s choreography by studying and performing sketches “drawn by a [Chinese] pastry chef using a brush pen,” and a story of how the game came into being in 1886 (to which the bulk of the narrative goes). Let me begin by suggesting that I’m glad that Lee Henderson teaches creative writing, as I’ll assume that celebrating imagining is a wonderful and important part of his pedagogy.
I can’t help but speak of The Man Game in the same breath as Taylor’s Stanley Park and Jack Hodgins’ Innocent Cities, and to do so names its exceptional pedigree. The Man Game is an imaginative novel, which is to say firmly rooted in Vancouver’s (and surrounding area’s) history (1886-7 to be precise). The history is not official, outside of the pomp and ceremony of officially recognizable historical officialdom. But the metaphors of place are decidedly Vancouver’s, a Vancouver where “the ground [is] dark, patched with vermilion moss and scattered with bright golden chanterelle mushrooms tucked like hankies into pockets of the earth.” The metaphors for tools used by Vancouverites are Vancouver’s as well, where “they debated different swamper’s axes and chose an eight-foot double-handed saw that looked like a killer whale’s jaw.” Henderson’s Vancouver is alive, a “Vancouver [that] well knows,” a Vancouver that speaks Chinook as well as a vernacular nuanced in the stressing of syllables and single letters (in the Klayhowya and “ha-llo”s, and in the “I knew you were a poltroon . . . a coward, you illiterate fuck”s, and in the totooshes and chickamins).
The Man Game’s Vancouver (a city “so far east that nothing was recognizable”) is geographically resonant: Hastings Mill, Carrall Street, Georgia Street, a pit that turns into the basement for the Hudson’s Bay, English Bay, Granville Street, Banana Slugs, Coal Harbour, the Salish peoples, Cordova Street, Westminster, Burrard Bridge, False Creek, Arbutus trees, Dupont Street, Main Street, Wally’s Burgers, Mount Pleasant, Stanley Park, the Whoi-Whoi Indians (did Red & Rosy’s General Store and Sunnyside Hotel & Saloon exist? I can’t help but not mind). The Man Game’s Vancouver is also dirty (“Vancouver had a living smell”), violent, and at war with trees (“this is war. Trees want to kills us. We’re here to kill every one a them.”), but the dirt and violence are purposefully ironic and local: for example, immigrant labour in Vancouver is Chinese labour—trees from Vancouver are sent to the Emperor of China as revenge for Vancouver’s “despicable,” often violent treatment of the Chinese; for example, Toronto, a Vancouver Indian guide, sadly notes that “every time he was charged with meeting someone at the train, that person brought some new evil. It was as if they’d brought along a hidden set of matches and, once in Vancouver, ped them on the ground, alighting it, transforming his home again and again. His home. Every time he brought guests to his home, it burned away a little more. Soon it would vanish completely and some new crystallized aberration would appear, the way blood, after soaking the earth, dries to a dark, cracked stained glass”—how are being haunted by the past and haunted by the future different?; for example, after an overnight at the whore house with “The Whore Without A Face,” Dunbar travels back to Toronto while “develop[ing] a full-blown case of catatonic mania brought on by a breed of super-syphilis . . . an intense bladder infection quickly turn[ing] into gushing venereal sores . . . all over his genitals and mouth”—are the diseases earned in a local Vancouver only incubated by departure, or by elsewhere that is East?
All of the above leads to the centre of this text, a centre that is the women. I quote a Vancouver friend and fellow reader when I say “they arrange; they negotiate; they surround; they supply; they configure; they avoid; they support; they invigorate; they nurse; they deconstruct the conventions of power; they circumvent the abuses of bureaucracy/received power.” And Molly is the inventor of the man game: she masters it, teaches it, imagines it and its potential into being, setting it free to arrange, negotiate, surround, supply, configure, avoid, support, invigorate, and nurse the men who compete in it, and gamble upon it. I also like how the meat and potatoes of the novel are meat and potatoes characters, characters who “not a bank in the world knew any of their names.” These are the people that make a city most alive and visceral. I also like how Henderson archives history with these people, daring not to leave their stories out. This novel argues that to really know a city, to know it intimately, to know Vancouver as a secularly sacred place, these people’s stories are paramount.
In the end, Henderson’s Vancouver is grandly humble—for example, loggers learn new skills. And while I’d rather a different title, one that matches the cerebral wit and bravado and metaphorical shine of the text (or to encourage more sales), and while this first novel likes the sound of its own prose a little too much, one hundred pages less would tighten its belt, Henderson’s first novel is a real treat, “a more accurate sense of history” incarnate.
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MLA: Roberts, Duffy. Vancouver's Chickamin. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 140 - 141)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.