Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Next Chapter: The Man Game

I’m delighted to join the fine folks on CBC’s new book show, “The Next Chapter,” to yak about books with a sporty angle. I recorded an episode last week with the so-literate and lovely host, Shelagh Rogers. We mused about two novels that explore sport and identity in very different ways. The hope is that I’ll contribute semi-regularly.

Why me? Well apart from my obvious interest in writing about sports, a couple of years ago I became a member of the Sport Literature Association, an international org devoted to the study of sport in literature and culture. Initiated in the 1980s, the organization now has several hundred members around the world and sponsors an annual conference in a different North American location each summer. I attended the Saratoga Springs edition and had a fantastic time with folks who study the literature of sport from a variety of angles and nations. (The spring 2009 gathering will be at Western in Ontario.)

In the wake of that stimulating weekend, I began planning a graduate seminar I’ll teach in the Writing Department at UVic in Spring 2010 (coinciding with the Olympics). “Moving Writing: The Body at Play” will explore the creative strategies writers use when they imagine the body—including the disabled body—in competition, in recreation and otherwise at play in and with the world. Smart and sporty writer and Manitoba Moose zealot, Aaron Shepard, is currently helping me design the course and narrow down the potentially mountainous reading list.

When I started reading and researching Cold-cocked, I became infatuated with the puzzle of how writers are able to capture in words what it is we enjoy about watching and playing games. Like, how do writers take what is essentially very fast visually—a face-off in hockey, or a swimmer’s flutter kick, or a left hook—and then slow it down, and interpret it so that readers can contemplate and consider meaning, not just watch the action.

Why am I still interested in the writing that uses sport to express meaning, and what do readers gain from this stuff? As I explain on “The Next Chapter,” many pleasures of watching sport are similar to reading:
  • Because our lives are relatively repetitive and work-worn, one theory goes, we want to identify with players and characters, especially when they do superhuman things;
  • We want to connect with a community of spectators and readers and so feel less isolated, hence also the success of the fantasy pool;
  • And we understand the rules and structure of the game—whether that’s curling or the short story—and are excited when the improbable or incongruous happens: the Hail Mary pass in the last minute, or the heroic and handsome canoist finishing last in a race he was meant to win, or when a historical novel messes with the facts or with our understanding of how we came to live the sorts of lives we do.
Lee Henderson’s The Man Game (Viking Canada) is stunning, a vast and complex novel set mostly in and around Vancouver in the late 1800s, and partly in contemporary East Vancouver. The historical thread explores a culture under the great pressure of the history of the West: dangerous and relentless physical labour involving logs and railways; brothels and other addictions; resistance to multiculturalism; class divisions; police corruption; the problem of weather. (It’s the kind of book that may, if you’re a writer, either inspire you to write or make you give up cause you’ll never match its brilliance. Whatever. Suck it up.)

Into this social chaos arrives the angelic Molly Erwagen (her bookkeeper husband is a paraplegic), and Molly’s an ex-vaudeville performer who recognizes the potential for profit if she coaches men to play and perform a new sport—Henderson calls it “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.” It’s a sort of naked wrestling with modern dance and martial arts moves—a sport that all members of this new society can become addicted to playing, watching and betting on. The sport enacts violence, but it also prevents the society from spiraling into non-stop violence. It essentially changes the course of history. Most compellingly, for me, the book demonstrates the human desire to witness competition and to be seduced by the beautiful and the erotic in sport.

(Sport is sometimes called the “opiate of the masses.” In this book, opium is the opiate of the masses, and the man game is successful, in part, because citizens are bored and stoned.)

The novel includes ink-brush sketches that depict and describe—in the lovely words of the town’s supreme pastry chef—the holds and flips of the sport. The contemporary thread follows a group of folks who have rediscovered and idealized the sport and, with the help of those sketches and also naked, are endeavouring to revive an extreme, counter-culture, backyard version of the man game.

In some sports literature, or literature that uses sport as a dominant motif, the metaphorical possibilities are wide and deep and that’s part of the pleasure of reading: making connections and understanding the body and competition in a new way, why it all matters to identity and so on.

The man game is like that: Henderson’s said that it’s a metaphor for engagement with the capital O Other that marked Chinese and First Nations tensions when the west was being settled. For me, the game says a lot about masculinity and the role of women in the physical lives of men; it presents violence as both brutal and beautiful which is, it seems to me, also what the settling of the west was, especially if you’re a forest.

And then there’s the erotic component: these men become infatuated with the beautiful Molly; the game exists because of men’s obsession with her; and the players train and perform naked. For me, the sporting body is always erotic, and this book depicts sport as primal, or elemental and also elegant. Put this beside the image of Molly’s husband in his wheelchair—a man who is all brain and no body—and the novel becomes very powerful in its wisdom about how we define men and women and even love. Everything about the game in 1886—all the metaphorical nuances—also apply to contemporary culture (the move toward extreme sports, for example), and that’s only one of the ways Henderson has done something remarkable and very moving.

With Henderson, the thrills come in many forms—the writing itself is breathtaking—and the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat are very complex ideas.

39 comments:

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