Lee Henderson - an oddly comic, often grotesque panorama of city life like something out of Bosch – or Pynchon

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Lee Henderson, The Man Game, Penguin Canada, 2009.

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Vancouver, a young man stumbles upon a secret sport invented more than a century before, at the birth of his city. Thus begins The Man Game, Lee Henderson's epic tale of love, requited and not, that crosses the contemporary and historical in an extravagant, anarchistic retelling of the early days of a pioneer town on the edge of the known world. In 1886, out of the smouldering ashes of the great fire that destroyed much of the city, Molly Erwagen—former vaudeville performer—arrives from Toronto with her beloved husband, Samuel, to start a new life. Meanwhile, Litz and Pisk, two lumberjacks exiled after the fire and blamed for having started it, are trying to clear their names. Before long, they've teamed up with Molly to invent a new sport that will change the course of that fledgling city's history.

“In its ambition, iconoclasm, and accomplishment The Man Game is reminiscent of Mordecai Richler’s great, ribald epic Solomon Gursky Was Here. Lee Henderson invents a history of Vancouver, Canada, and frontier life that satisfies and defies expectations as only the best fiction can. The Man Game is an extraordinary book written by a young writer who possesses remarkable powers of observation, description, and empathy. ” - David Bezmozgis

Readers familiar with the grim suburban landscape of Lee Henderson’s 2002 short-story collection The Broken Record Technique may be surprised to discover that the Saskatoon-born, Vancouver-dwelling author’s debut novel digs deep into the hoary ground of Canadian history. Set mostly during Vancouver’s early years – when the city, awaiting a CPR hookup to the rest of the country, was still a rowdy Wild West outpost – The Man Game is indeed a historical novel, but one that operates according to its own cracked logic, conjuring a city peopled by gruff woodsmen, indentured Chinese labourers, corrupt city officials, and rapacious, opium-addicted industrialists.
The invisible thread that connects all these people is the raunchy, subversive “man game.” Invented by 17-year-old ex-vaudeville actor Molly Erwagen, who arrives in Vancouver with her crippled husband Sammy amidst the great fire of 1886, the game combines the violence and histrionics of professional wrestling with the graceful acrobatics of ballroom dancing – “a waltz with a clap in the face.” Performed in the nude, the game becomes a wildly popular spectator sport among the city’s downtrodden – which is to say, nearly everyone.
Henderson’s tale skips among a myriad of characters, painting an oddly comic, often grotesque panorama of city life like something out of Bosch – or Pynchon, for that matter. Inevitably, just like one of the performers of the man game, Henderson does at times swing wide of the mark, faltering on the novel’s ambitious narrative sweep. Sammy’s ward, for example, a Snauq Indian who speaks in a wooden patois (“A deer go to hide in the water”), is about as subtle as the cigar-store variety. And Vancouver’s mythic past never really connects to the humdrum reality of the novel’s present-day narrator, who stumbles upon a cache of man game memorabilia in an east side basement.
But as pure spectacle, The Man Game is as brilliant and twisted as a funhouse mirror, and Henderson is a wildly seductive ringmaster. - Quill & Quire https://quillandquire.com/review/the-man-game/

“As a work of speculative historical fiction, as a study in the nature of unrequited love, as a song of praise to the power the objects of our affections wield, The Man Game becomes more than a ripping good yarn; it’s a stunning achievement.” –Winnipeg Free Press

“This is not your mom’s historical novel… It’s clear that Lee Henderson is very clever and immensely talented.” –The Vancouver Sun

“The Man Game is one of the most entertaining, rollicking and original Canadian novels I've ever read.” - Toronto Star

“Lee Henderson has written an audacious, inventive, genre-bending debut novel." - Chronicle Herald

“One of the strangest, strongest and most fascinating pieces of fiction to come around in some time...Totally captivating and terrifically different, this is a novel filled with action, tension and magic.” - Owen Sound Sun Times

Most recent draft of the cover art for the book

Lee Henderson's comic world novel a powerful look at often-forgotten time
 Lee Henderson, The Road Narrows As You Go, Hamish Hamilton, 2014.

All Wendy Ashbubble has ever wanted is to draw comics as well as Charles Schultz’s Peanuts—and to one day see her creations grace the pages of a major daily newspaper. Growing up in Victoria in the 1970s, Wendy dreams of getting out, getting away … and getting recognition for her talent. And there’s another, never-whispered motivation that prompts her to seek her fortune: a deeply buried memory and unshakeable belief that her unknown father is Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president of the United States.
A chance meeting in Victoria with an attractive-but-mysterious travelling artist inspires Wendy to take the plunge, and she runs away to live in a dilapidated artists’ commune in San Francisco. There, amid the haze of top-quality weed, unbridled creativity, and unfettered sex, her dream begins to take tangible shape. With the aid of Frank Fleecen, an up-and-coming bonds trader and agent, Wendy’s Strays are soon competing for newsprint space against the likes of Berkeley Breathed, Jim Davis, and Bill Watterston … even against Wendy’s beloved Charles Schultz himself.
But there are darker shades on the pencilled horizon: the spectre of AIDS, unexplained disappearances, bad therapy, junk bonds, demonology, and SEC agents investigating Frank’s business protocols.
The Road Narrows As You Go is simultaneously the portrait of a young woman struggling to find her place and a bright, rollicking, unflinching depiction of the 1980s. It embodies all the brash optimism and ruthless amoralism of the decade, as well as its preoccupation with repressed memories, and fully captures the flavour of an uncertain but deeply vibrant era.

I can't say that it's a universal reaction, but in my experience it's a fairly common one: at a certain point in the revision process - often upon receipt of an editor's notes - a writer will be inclined to scrap everything and start over.
Most writers resist this urge. Not so for Victoria writer and creative writing teacher Lee Henderson who, upon receiving the editorial letter for his most recent manuscript last September, decided, after six drafts, to start again. He wrote a new version of his novel between January and May of this year; The Road Narrows As You Go was published in September.
"I finished it in mid-May, and we went straight into editing," the 40-year-old writer says, when we meet for a mid-afternoon pint at the Bent Mast, a pub near his home in Victoria's James Bay neighbourhood. The editorial notes served as a guide for the last draft. "My one task for this was to keep on focus, to tell the essential bits of this very weird story and not the other stuff."
The experiment - "a really nerve-racking experience" - was a success; the novel is a delightfully immersive, ramshackle read, moving and ludicrous by turns, steeped in and faithful to its setting, the early 1980s world of cartoonists living and working in San Francisco. Henderson, a lifelong fan of daily comic strips and other graphic storytelling who once wanted to be a fulltime cartoonist, throws himself wholly into the project.
Wendy Ashbubble, the focal character of the novel, is a secret Canadian, raised in Victoria although she claims to be from Cleveland. Convinced that President Reagan is her father (her mother was an actress), she is devoted, almost to a fault, to her comic strip Strays. Throughout the novel, Henderson creates examples of the strip, which features a cast of animals living in a vacant lot near the crumbling mansion Ashbubble lives in with a motley crew of other comic writers and illustrators.
The house itself has a reputation, cemented early on by a wake held for one of its most famous inhabitants, one of the first victims of the then-unnamed AIDS epidemic. Ashbubble is drawn into the sketchy family of comic strip creators, her world growing to include both fictional characters and real-life figures, including Maus-scribe Art Spiegelman, Peanuts-eminence Charles Schulz and, later, upstart purist and Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson. The use of real-life figures is both effective and, as Henderson confides, unavoidable.
"That was a little strange," he says, with perhaps a deliberate understatement. "It was meant to be an opportunity to pay a little homage to them in the middle of the book." The appearances, however, go beyond mere cameos.
"I couldn't figure out how you do a book about the comic world and not include these people. It starts to feel like you're avoiding it because you don't know how to deal with it."
Wendy's world sprawls outward to include junk bond impresarios, fledgling media moguls and investigators for the SEC.
Henderson, it turns out, isn't just writing about a cartoonist, but creating a vivid portrait of the early 1980s itself, a society in the shadow of Reaganomics and the White House's denial of AIDS, of free-flowing drugs and sex, and the costs of both. It's an effective and powerful piece, a historical novel of a time which most of us lived through, but have likely forgotten.
While the historical nature of the novel isn't much of a surprise - Henderson's much lauded last novel, The Man Game, was set in a slightly off-kilter historical rendering of Vancouver, where the writer lived from the time he was 19 - the geographical setting might be.
"If you're going to do a book about comic strips, (San Francisco is) the ultimate city. That's where they all flocked. Starting with the Robert Crumb era, but even before that ... It's always been a graphic designers' and illustrators' city. The 'Girl Friday' in Vertigo, that Hitchcock movie, is a cartoonist. It's always had this notoriety as being the place for cartoonists."
The city itself was familiar to Henderson from frequent family vacations from his childhood home in Calgary.
"That was our road trip, we would drive down the coast to San Francisco, so I have really powerful memories associated with the same years that I loved comics."
Although memories of the city loom large in Henderson's adult consciousness, the novel avoids any sort of nostalgic glow: San Francisco, in The Road Narrows As You Go, is a grungy, edgy city, steeped in drugs, betrayal, and sex. There is, for example, a description of a bathhouse so unflinching it can't be quoted in a daily newspaper. This is entirely appropriate, emblematic of the novel as a whole: firmly rooted in the sordid, heartbreaking world inhabited by the creators of works typically consumed with one's morning bowl of cereal. It is to Henderson's considerable credit that he is able to bring both aspects to life so convincingly.
Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published next year. He has never been the subject of a comic before. - Robert J. Wiersema  www.vancouversun.com/news/Henderson+comic+world+novel+powerful+look+often+forgotten+time/10324802/story.html

The world behind the funny pages, as imagined by Lee Henderson in his sophomore novel The Road Narrows As You Go, is one rife with sex, drugs and complicated financial scheming as it follows the arc of a young cartoonist’s meteoric rise and catastrophic fall, sketching a vivid picture of the 1980s along the way.
In the beginning, Wendy Ashbubble’s strip, Strays, is a modest success syndicated in a handful of community papers and beloved by the other residents of No Manors, the once-home of legendary artist Hick Elmdales and a temporary home for other cartoonists.
The novel opens with Elmdales’ death from AIDS-related illness, which throws the whole house into disarray. While Hick is on his deathbed, Wendy inks a deal with Frank Fleecen, a toupeed Wall Street wizard who takes a liking to Strays and its creator. The two events create the chaos that lies at the heart of Henderson’s work. Elmdales’ death becomes a pivotal event not just for Wendy but for the entire art world.
Jonjay, an ephemeral artist who is perpetually successful, returns to the house on the eve of Hick’s funeral and serves to inject notes of chaos throughout the story. He stages a mock ceremony where the cartoonists gathered — from legends like Art Spiegelman to unknowns — eat pieces of “Elmdales’ flesh.” The ceremony reverberates throughout the book as a mysterious ritual, sending up the hysteria over Satanic ritual abuse throughout the 1980s.
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As the residents of No Manors grapple with Hick’s death, Wendy’s career begins to take off. The characters of Strays spread to more newspapers across the country and Fleecen hooks up marketing deals galore. Toys based on her characters are produced. Newspapers from coast to coast snap up the comic. But it’s all for naught — Fleecen’s manipulation of junk bonds catches the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Henderson tells the story of the rise and fall of Strays through the eyes of Wendy’s four assistants, creating a kind of motion sickness as the reader struggles with a hydra-like narrator’s voice, never quite sure of which perspective the tale is being told from.
Periodically, Henderson falls into bouts of esoteric history lectures on comics and art. He waxes on about newspaper strips and ink-stained legends, crafting excellent prose for the appropriately educated reader. But, unfortunately, for the uninitiated it is alienating, distracts from the otherwise compelling commentary and drama in the book and adds considerable length. - 

The heroine of Lee Henderson’s sprawling novel about art and commerce in the 1980s is Wendy Ashbubble, an ambitious young cartoonist who flees her Victoria home for San Francisco, where she sets up shop in a dilapidated hilltop mansion and artist commune dubbed No Manors. She authors a comic strip featuring pithy anthropomorphized animals entitled Strays, which rapidly transcends the underground status of her friends’ comics, becoming nearly as ubiquitous a cultural fixture as her beloved Peanuts. Wendy’s professional pursuits, romantic entanglements and adventures in cities and deserts over the course of several years supply The Road Narrows As You Go with its busy story, which is narrated in the first-person-plural by Wendy’s quartet of housemate-assistants, none of whom are particularly well-drawn. Our supernumerary narrators’ paucity of personality is symptomatic of this novel’s peculiar imbalance of character or incident or ideas, which it holds in abundance, and nuance or urgency or fresh insight, of which there is less than one might hope for.
Not that there’s any lack of data on our heroine. Wendy eats chocolate cereal and French toast for breakfast, constantly smokes weed, and always chooses the funnies over the news. She takes her work very seriously and, early in The Road Narrows As You Go, chooses Lucifer’s fast-track to mainstream success. Wendy’s defining characteristic, what makes her emblematic of the transition from the ’70s to the ’80s, is the blatant contradiction between the bohemian persona she adopts and the fundamentally bourgeois nature of her goals.
She becomes a client of Frank Fleecen, a millionaire junk bond titan and early cellular phone devotee permanently topped with an invincible toupée. Fleecen is older, married, energetic, obnoxious, sinister: the Faustian nature of his pact with Wendy is implied in the first mention of his Pynchonian surname. The overwhelming erotic allure Fleecen holds for our heroine would be baffling were it not for the way he’s carefully designed to fulfill her psychic need. Something in Wendy longs for legitimacy and commercial acceptance: seeing her creations transformed into sundry forms of lucrative merchandise seems as fulfilling for her as her peers’ approval or Strays’ ever-burgeoning syndication. Frank promises her maximum exposure and toy store displays with the same breath he uses to declare his love for her and for Strays, so by the novel’s emotional arithmetic she will inevitably become his lover. Or moll.
The history-laden passages are certainly among the strongest in the book. Yet at times they read an awful lot like a showcase for years of diligent research
But as much as this novel is about anything, it’s about an era and various milieux. The AIDS epidemic, Satanic Ritual Abuse, the Iran-Contra affair, the Challenger disaster, VHS vs. Betamax: There’s nary a major headline from the 1980s that doesn’t receive at least marginal acknowledgment in Henderson’s portrait of a decade. Meanwhile counterculture and comic-strip icons come out of the woodwork: H.R. Giger, Ralph Steadman and Hunter S. Thompson drop by, there’s a visit to Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey, a dinner with Maus author Art Spiegelman (who is, of course, a big fan of Wendy’s), a friendly encounter with Calvin & Hobbes author Bill Watterson (also a big fan) and a glimpse of Far Side author Gary Larson picking his nose at a public event (cause for a libel suit?). There is an entire chapter on a Macy’s parade, and a compelling, if totally fantastical, lunch with President Reagan, whom Wendy believes to be her biological father. I suppose all this captures the spirit of a fraught age. The history-laden passages are certainly among the strongest in the book. Yet at times they read an awful lot like a showcase for years of diligent research. (Though I’m fairly sure Henderson confuses Christopher Plummer with Christopher Lee).
This sweeping cultural survey aligns The Road Narrows As You Go with several recent novels, such as Zachary Lazar’s Sway, just about anything by Jonathan Lethem, or, most especially, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, which roughly overlaps with The Road Narrows As You Go historically and shares with it a largely passive young female protagonist under the sway of older, authoritarian men, and an interest in critiquing the shallowness of the art world. But it’s in this critique that Henderson’s characters are, well, at their most cartoonish. He creates, for example, a gallery owner whose pretentious abbreviated declarations read like a godawful parody of DeLillo-speak: “My field is contemporary art, Justine sniffed. Autonomous radical ideas pushing the envelope et cetera. The artists I represent make demands. Conceptual. Found objects. Minimal. Postmodern.”
To be sure, Henderson, whose acclaimed previous works include the novel The Man Game and the short story collection The Broken Record Technique, is just as ambitious as his heroine — and he has more integrity. No one’s going to accuse Henderson of trying to sell out with The Road Narrows As You Go. Indeed, given its length and admirable resistance to synopsis or generic categorization, it’s a bit of a tough sell. But what made it a bit of a tough read is the fact that it’s teeming with observations about compromise, careerism and unchecked capitalism, yet little of it feels invested with a sense of lived experience or surprise. Until it reaches its genuinely moving and poetic denouement (a good reason to stick with it!), there are feelings described but little emotion, plenty of sex but little that’s sexy, lots of jokes but no robust sense of humour. It’s something of a rise-and-fall narrative with countless micro-undulations and I do believe that Henderson put everything he had into it. I wonder how it might have been had he opted to leave a few things out, if the road were a little more narrow to begin with. - José Teodoro 

Lee Henderson’s The Road Narrows as You Go plays out a life the author didn’t choose

Click here to read a short story called Gnomes With Knives

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Lee Henderson, The Broken Record Technique, Viking/Penguin, 2002.

Adolescent boys lost in sumo wrestler costumes battle it out in a suburban yard as their parents stake the odds. A boy disappears from his home, lured by a man who looks exactly like his father. A young man spends a potentially heroic day with his wife at the new wave pool, while trying to save his marriage. These are quirky, engaging stories both afflicted and inspired by the profound isolation and psychic drift that are inherent in a world of talk show television, mega-malls, and suburban sprawl. In his stunning and critically acclaimed debut collection, Lee Henderson evokes a world both utterly strange, yet eerily familiar.

“Vancouverite Lee Henderson has 10 word-perfect stories of suburban satire that will confirm all your most bitter memories." - - The Georgia Straight

“…Fans of literary texture and depth will undoubtedly love losing themselves in Broken Record’s labyrinth of language.” - - EYE weekly

“It’s a strange and disquieting world and one that we are privileged to visit though the 10 stories in this inaugural collection.” - - Vancouver Sun

Lee Henderson's debut collection of short fiction is an eccentric, mostly scintillating affair, packed with oddities and graced with an emotional pitch that warbles between ennui and outright heartbreak. The Broken Record Technique seems like the kind of writing that is usually pegged as suburban, but Henderson's eyes and ears are capable of looking outside of the strip malls, and a few of his stories bring an eerily urbanized view of farm life to the page.
Henderson's best stories are wholly unforgettable. The finale of The Broken Record Technique, the enigmatically titled "W," seems like the stuff of a bizarre TV movie: a young boy is abducted from his family's small-town home by a man who looks exactly like his father. The only witness to the crime is a remarkable toy, an electronic talking marmot blessed with formidable artificial intelligence. As the police haplessly search for clues to the case, the marmot gradually starves to death like a plush tamagotchi, losing its recorded evidence. Other highlights include "Spines a Length of Velcro," the tale of two suburban preteens forced to don plastic suits and sumo-wrestle for the delight of their betting, flirting, and inebriated parents; and "The Unfortunate," the touching tale of a doomed little boy born with a head the shape of a football who grows up in a rural home and eventually takes a job killing chickens.
A few of these stories feel like filler--postmodernism by the numbers that could have come from the pen of any young North American male writer. Nonetheless, the best stories in The Broken Record Technique far outshine the weak ones, and this is a formidable (and entertaining) first collection. --Jack Illingworth

In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen from a distance – from the bow of an approaching ship – that it might have had a name.” That elegant sentence comes from the late John Cheever’s most famous short story, “The Swimmer,” a satire about a man who swims a relay of suburban pools to his empty home. Like all great writers, Cheever had a talent analogous to that of a virtuoso musician, bearing his tremendous understanding of musical form (rhythm, melody, tone) with humility.
Lee Henderson’s story “The Runner,” one of nine in his first collection, The Broken Record Technique, bears the subheading “after John Cheever.” The story of a man who jogs a relay of fitness-club treadmills across Vancouver, “The Runner” so offends the legacy of Cheever that, if the writing weren’t so bad, one would suspect a parody.
Henderson joins writers like Sheila Heti, Hal Niedzviecki, and Judy MacDonald in adopting a trendy “faux naive” style. Treating language like playdough, he twists and stretches it beyond breaking, forming weird, often gratuitously impenetrable stories about suffering children, evil and forlorn adults, and talking inanimate objects. Rare moments of cleverness, even beauty, seem the product of chance rather than control.
Heralded by some as experimental, the style is invariably undermined by technical ineptitude. Henderson struggles with such basics as character and setting, pronoun usage, dialogue, and avoiding clichés. Gaffes abound, and while they may be naive, they certainly aren’t faux. Henderson’s writing abandons humility, placing itself condemningly above its subjects, sneering with petty irony, often denying characters even the dignity of a name – proving that a great gulf lies between experimentation and learning to write. - quillandquire.com/review/the-broken-record-technique/

Lee Henderson is the award-winning author of The Broken Record Technique and The Man Game. His writing appears in the PEN Canada anthology Finding the Words and the speculative fiction anthology Darwin’s Bastards. For a decade he has written about contemporary Canadian artists for Border Crossings magazine. He has exhibited artwork in Vancouver, Toronto, and elsewhere, and curated shows of contemporary art and experimental music, including the inaugural selection for Hamish Hamilton Canada’s online gallery, The Looking Glass. He has led workshops for UBC and the Summer Literary Seminar and mentored at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and he currently teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria. His new novel, The Road Narrows As You Go, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in September 2014.

Interview by Anita Bedell