The Man Game puts past in play for Lee Henderson

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      At Stanley Park, the Hollow Tree is braced by two beams and could be mistaken for a giant, primordial tripod. In Lee Henderson’s mind, the long-standing but ailing park attraction appears too small.

      Henderson, whose first novel, The Man Game (Penguin, $32), is set in an earlier period of Vancouver’s history, when the park was occupied by squatters, a Native settlement, and a herd of free-range cattle, describes archival photos he’s seen in which people pose with cars and elephants inside the tree. In his novel, he’s set a pivotal scene, in which one character spurns another’s advances, at the local landmark.

      “It must have been pretty huge at one time,” says Henderson about the tree, which, he tells me, has shrunken as it’s dried out over the decades. “It’s still pretty towering.”

      The Man Game isn’t your typical historical novel, one that tries to conjure a place in the past as accurately and believably as possible. Although thoroughly researched, the book is full of deliberate anachronisms, including its eponymous conceit: a Greco-Roman–style wrestling competition between naked lumberjacks that transfixes the city in its early days.

      “I was thinking of historical novels in Canada and what was missing from them, which is a sense of direct and explicit contemporary relevance,” says Henderson of his novel’s origins. “I wanted to write a historical novel that felt more contemporary than one that was an accurate representation of a time and place. I wanted it to feel more like a speculation than a real history.”

      Henderson was raised in Saskatoon and attended the UBC creative-writing program, where I first met him in the 1990s. Some of his early stories ended up in his first book, The Broken Record Technique, which was published in 2002 and won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best debut collection of short fiction the following year.

      Henderson actually began writing The Man Game in 1999, when, he says, he started “thinking about athletics, video games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter, and trying to see the narrative behind that”.

      Set in logging camps, brothels, and opium dens, Henderson’s novel centres on Molly Erwagen, a beautiful ex-vaudeville performer who arrives in Vancouver from Toronto with her wheelchair-bound husband, Samuel. Erwagen devises the man game and enlists two outcast loggers, Litz and Pisk, to enact its complex choreography. The Man Game is footnoted with sketches that describe the game’s moves, which have fanciful names like “Hudson’s Bay Blankets” and “The Hatched Back”.

      According to Henderson, the man game itself is a metaphor for engagement with the Other that marked the new city’s signature conflicts: the labour struggles, the mistreatment of First Nations people, and the anti-Chinese sentiment that would lead to full-blown riots. For a brief while, the city’s various ethnic groups and social strata are brought together by their fascination with the game.

      Henderson says his treatment of the past was influenced by writers like George Bowering, Cormac McCarthy, and Haruki Murakami. The book’s inventively visual, high-flying prose, which uses historical diction but is also thoroughly contemporary, suggests Thomas Pynchon. (Henderson also weaves a modern-day story line into the novel that explicitly ties the past to the present.) From an English-Chinook dictionary he found in his research, Henderson peppers the dialogue with words from the coastal pidgin language, such as chickamin (Chinook for “money”) and klahowya (“hello”). “If you were living in old Vancouver and using that old trade language,” explains Henderson, “you would probably sprinkle it into your conversations.”

      To Henderson, the physical struggle involved in the man game is also a kind of photo-negative metaphor for the act of writing. “It’s such a nonphysical occupation, writing, and I sort of have this feeling that there’s this shadow version of myself that’s really muscular and violent and nothing but neck down, and that kind of character shows up in this book.

      But like the man game, there’s something about writing that’s honest and naked, where you’re trying to achieve something that’s not covered up or disguised. You’re trying to strip everything down to your source material, your birthday suit, and you wrestle it out.”