The Man Game – I still don’t know what it’s about

I was so looking forward to hearing about The Man Game by Lee Henderson, especially since the launch of this, his second book, was part of the first week of a new season of This is Not a Reading Series. I had such a great time last year at Pages Books’ not-readings that I positively bounced as I entered the Gladstone Hotel Ballroom.

The art of various kinds all over the walls really captured the attention, since the ballroom walls are usually bare for these events. But I’d heard two things about the upcoming evening, one being that art relating to the book would be featured. And the other…

Well, interviewer Nathan Whitlock (Books for Young People editor at Quill & Quire) put it best. He said that as a writer’s second book, the industry often looks for a “sprawling historical epic.” And perhaps they got it, in The Man Game, except “the sprawling has mainly to do with male nude wrestling.”

Yep. That was the other thing I’d heard: that the book was about a rough and tumble game dreamed up by a woman in late 1880s Vancouver, where men released their aggression by engaging in a strange naked dance/game in the streets. Naturally I wanted to learn more. Wouldn’t you?

The problem was…we didn’t, really.

Henderson seemed at a loss about how to promote the book without doing an actual reading, so he recapped the premise as described above, then discussed what he researched to create the weird naked game. Said research turned out, pretty much, to be countless dance videos on YouTube. Which he shared with the audience at great length.

It wasn’t necessarily bad that the videos went on forever. They were fascinating, and everyone discovered at least one dance craze they’d never heard of. The Mashed Potato is surprisingly popular among YouTube video posters. And a recent new style, mainly from Chicago (where it’s called Juke dancing) and Baltimore (Vit dancing), looks like a cross between the Mashed Potato and the Charleston. More intriguing – even disturbing – is the phenomenon called “Peanut Butter Jelly Time,” in which American soldiers in Iraq do a weird and sexually suggestive dance behind other soldiers’ backs.

Watching the videos, we could begin to imagine what sort of game it was, played by all those naked men in 1880s Vancouver. We learned a lot about the range of dance styles, in that long spell of YouTube watching. But we learned very little about the book.

After the videos came the virtual art tour. And although much of it was very good, none related directly to Henderson’s book. It seemed instead to have been chosen because it was produced by his friends, who had since left Vancouver, most moving to Toronto. Many, in fact, were actually in attendance, making the event a combination book launch/pseudo-family reunion, complete with crying babies.

As Whitlock conducted his interview, he gamely tried to relate the art pieces to the book, suggesting they chronicle a Vancouver that is now gone with these artists’ departure, the way Henderson’s book captures an idea of the 1880s city which is similarly lost. There ensued a fascinating discussion about how much the deep culture of Vancouver has been destroyed by the Rudy Giuliani-like changes forced on the city in preparation for the 2010 Olympics.

But if all this had real relevance to The Man Game, the audience couldn’t tell, unless they’d already read it and had some idea what it was about. (Beyond the naked men playing games, I mean.) No one could settle down; people kept shifting their chairs, coming and going, or getting distracted by the crying kids or loud music from the room next door. The disjointed agenda seemed to glance occasionally at the Book of Honour on the side table and say, “Oh, right. That.”

So after all this, do I want to read this book? The interesting dance videos and great art didn’t really create any interest in the book itself. I wish it would have; that’s why I attended. But after it was over…no. I’m probably not that interested in reading The Man Game.

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