M. introduced me to Lee Henderson’s The Man Game. He read it for fun this summer and it ended up part of his comprehensive exams (Canadian literature). I’m not sure why, but unless my mum recommends it, I have a hard time reading “suggested” books. The problem is a combination of doubt and arrogance: doubt that other people know books; arrogance that I do. In any event, M. was right, and The Man Game is terrific (though it has some difficulties, the least of which is unnecessary length – 500+ pages could have been trimmed to 400).
A work of historical fiction (set in both 1885-87 and 2008) The Man Game is unusual because it does not attempt to cover a sweeping period of history, but rather chooses to focus on a limited period of time and a limited location (downtown Vancouver). At first this limited scope bothered me, but once I stopped waiting for events to speed up and more “time” to be covered, I settled in and enjoyed the vivid descriptions of naked men fighting one another.
The fight descriptions are remarkable for the complexity of the physical movement described. While most of the fight scenes are accompanied by an illustration, these illustrations actually detract more than they add: forcing the reader to try and reconcile the imagined image with the illustration. That said, the fight scenes are long, detailed and rich.
The fight scenes, or perhaps better termed dance scenes, are the physical expressions of “the man game,” the ostensible focus of the novel. The background for the game – invented and choreographed by a woman (Molly Erwagen) – is the fictionalized 1886 Vancouver Riots (perhaps a fictionalization of the 1886 Seattle riots (?) – Vancouver did not have major race-related riots until 1907) and the immigration of Chinese labourers to Vancouver. The novel introduces the idea that white settlers did not like relying on inexpensive Chinese labour, but were in fact, reliant upon it for construction projects and industrialization. It points out that the contemporary Canadian nation continues to function on a two-tiered labour market and that considerable tension continues in the present between non-racialized and racialized Canadians. But while the elements of race, immigration and nation building deserve attention, I found the women in the novel to be the most interesting and complicated element.
There are six noteworthy women in a novel of thirty-two characters listed on “The Cast” page (a page that nods to historiographic metafiction and that I could have done without). The women fall into two groups: the hapless and the fierce. Mrs. Litz (imprisoned in a cabin in the woods by her hero man-game winning husband, Litz), Mrs. Alexander (who, despite the school-marm lecture she gives rioters, remains dependent on her husband for everything – including her opium supply) and the Whore-without-a-face, allow others to dictate the terms of their movement, desires, and satisfactions. Whereas Molly (the inventor of the man-game), Minna (the contemporary female protagonist who directly mirrors Molly, to a degree that the two might be thought of interchangeably) and Peggy (the whore-house madam) routinely use the promise (or threat) of sex and love to manipulate men. Such is the power of female seduction and manipulation in this novel that the men perhaps only ever fight in the “man” game for the purpose of proving their manliness to Molly (or Minna) and in so doing to earn their favour. The fierce women know the power they wield, and do so with exacting precision, and, I think, with little care or remorse.
Molly joins the ranks of Cathy (East of Eden) and Xenia (The Robber Bride) in the category of “manipulative women in fiction.” For while she is strikingly beautiful and devoted to her (paralyzed-not-paralyzed husband), I can’t help but feel that every action she takes, every thought she has, originate from her desperation to being loved and needed. The novel (problematically) suggests this does not make her cruel or selfish, just, a woman.
Next book? Maybe I’ll take another suggestion. But I’ll whine about the length. I’m tired of propping up 500 pages in the tub. (Wa.)