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.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Allegory O' the Room

This time of the season: the slap and tickle of the live fantasy draft gives way to deep bitterness over picks scooped by others; 4 games played in far-off lands on big ice with intriguing new lines and match-ups (Jarkko! Cookie! Marc Crawford’s colour!); an endless pause stretches out before the season’s North American debut when those fantasy points will start to determine good-day or bad-day at work; plans to plant Salt Spring Island garlic between periods, between games come the weekend.

Post-equinox, the signs are good. Who scores the season’s very first goal? My former pretend boyfriend, Markus Naslund, looking a little tractor-like in the acceleration department, but the wrist shot (another spring surgery on that Moore-busted elbow) seems epic. Who’s leading, after—okay—four games those goofs who Live-Draft mocked me when I picked the once and future Nazzie? Team LoJack, yes.

And over at my other pool—which formed the real structural backbone of Cold-cocked—team names and players have really stepped up. Last year, Bill Gaston (Midnight Hockey and The Good Body) who was BESTASS became BLESTASS and this year dresses Team OBAMASS. Joaner MacLeod has for years been known as TALLON, in honour of our Vancouver girlhood pretend boyfriend, Dale; this year she’s gone all ManU and is Team BIG GIRL’S BLOUSE. We finally convinced poet/hockey scholar Tim Lilburn to join. The team name he really wanted had too many letters, so it’s been shortened to Team ALLEGORY O’ CAVE. This prompted another newbie—our uber-grad student, Aaron—to go with Team WHEN IS A MAN?

Speaking of poets, I hung out with Randall Maggs a couple of weeks back at the wonderful Winnipeg International Writers Festival (Cara Hedley, author of the chick-hockey novel, Twenty Miles, was with us, too, a good gal guide for our Splash and Dash ride on the Assinaboine and Red Rivers). Randall may be the current best-selling poet in North America with his Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. Over breakfast on Sunday, he posed a new theory as to why I would feel such energy and excitement in the Canucks dressing room, why along with the fear and silly self-consciousness I meditated on in Cold-cocked, I would feel also renewed and alive, aroused in the usual and unusual ways.

Elsewhere in the book, in honour of my fighter-pilot father, I try to dispose of the prevailing and ridiculous comparison between hockey players and warriors. But Randall thinks I might have been tapping into some deep vein of battlelust when the sight of B Mo’s bare feet got me going. Warrior/players, he proposes, are healthy and strong and happy to be fighting and really pleased with themselves because they’re protecting the womenfolk and the whole society. Pride, arrogance, super-charged ego: we need them to be this way and like it when they are. The sexual component is natural, too. Once the community is defended and the ramparts hosed down, we can all celebrate, relax and breed more warriors. Happy players, happy fans, and especially happy civilians who get to hang out for twenty minutes, post-wargames, in the room. Maybe.

Our Prime Minister, on national television, explains that he appreciates the arts, really likes the cultural component of this country, totally gets it, because after all, his son is taking guitar lessons. Our Prime Minister doesn’t know the difference between a hobby and a profession, a calling, or what it costs artists to contribute to society in the way they believe most meaningful, textured and efficient. Count the books mentioned in this blog and appreciate the ways authors influence and improve the way we see ourselves, how they aspire to lead us out o’ the cave and into the light (block that metaphor). Consider the vast territory we cover and the not-always quantifiable investment return we provide. To paraphrase Francine Prose in a recent Harper’s review, the Prime Minister could express contempt and loathing for a vast list (updated on the hour) of liars, cheats, millionaires, hockey teams and infidels, all of whom “access” public funds, but chooses to condemn and ridicule Canada’s cultural community. Why?

Randall is due to tour the Sawchuk Poems in all the American cities that have teams for which Terry Sawchuk played, thanks to the genius of his publisher, the small and lovely and low-overhead Brick Books, and the cooperation of the Canadian consuls in those cities. He spent almost a decade researching and writing his book—obsessed, passionate, and determined to tell the story, through art—poetry!—of a complex and tortured hockey player. He will receive royalties only in the form of copies of his own book. Cara Hedley has written the first novel about women playing the national game and is now a PhD student at the University of Calgary. 

Cold-cocked attempts to disassemble the simplistic, Don Cherrified, over-determined version of the sport and to rekindle and re-frame a nation’s love of its beauty, to de-centralize our preoccupations. I received no Canada Council or BC Arts Council funding for the book, nor did I ask for any. I paid two editors (my employer, UVic, helped here), a photographer, and a publicist; I paid for a flight to Toronto, one to Vancouver, and hockey tickets to 15 games in Vancouver. I will long be in debt to the book, and my publisher will not become wealthy through its proceeds, though he took a huge risk in publishing a book that is so counter-culture and which central Canada booksellers deemed to be “regional” (egads!) and therefore not worthy of prime shelf space. We all deserve better, no doubt, but we accept the terms.