His Own Private Shangri-La

By following his own path, Lee Henderson has emerged as the freshest voice in CanLit.

Summer, 2010 / No. 24
Photograph by Dina Goldstein
Dina Goldstein

It’s unlikely there is another writer in Canada like Lee Henderson. A devotee of Japanese noise music, curator of a travelling art salon housed inside an old hard-shell briefcase, he can dissect the work of the artist Marcel Dzama one moment, and debate the merits of Alabama’s underground rap scene the next. He animated Sonic Youth’s “Tunic” video when he was fifteen years old, held his bachelor party at Snoqualmie Falls, Washington, where scenes for the television show Twin Peaks were filmed, posed for the cover of Quill & Quire with his pet bunny, and co-starred in a made-for-TV movie. His friend, the writer Kevin Chong, calls him “one of the most effortlessly cool people” he knows.

With just one novel and a short-story collection, Henderson already has established himself as a strikingly original author, as bizarre and fascinating as the eccentrics and oddballs who populate his fiction. “Lee would be the hardest guy to profile. You need a profile to have a thrust, and there’s no thrust to Lee,” says the novelist Steven Galloway. “Lee is the weirdest guy I’ve ever known.”

On a March afternoon, not long after the end of the Winter Olympics, Henderson, thirty-five, is walking through the Vancouver neighbourhood of Strathcona, where he lives with his wife, Anu, and their pet rabbit, Francis. During the Games, Henderson E-mailed me frantic updates describing the energy that was consuming Vancouver—a kinetic sort of communion that gripped its citizens. “I’m glued to the Olympics,” he wrote one day. “The city is going bananas.” His enthusiasm surprised me. In earlier conversations, he’d seemed unsure of the five-ringed colossus heading toward the coast. All the artists were leaving, he told me more than once. Now, he seems almost happy to have hosted the world. “I totally got sucked in,” he admits, talking to me on his stroll via mobile phone. “None of us could have predicted the reaction the city had to the athletes being here, because the lead-up was so skeptical. It just felt like no one was looking forward to them. But, obviously, we were all wrong—everyone was looking forward to them. It was such a release.”

Henderson was mollified in part by the Cultural Olympiad, a multi-disciplinary festival running parallel to the Olympics that he thinks offered some of the most interesting public art and culture events Vancouver has ever seen. Henderson himself was featured in a showcase programmed by the author and musician Michael Turner at The Candahar, an art installation/pub created by the Irish artist Theo Sims on Granville Island. He read personal memoirs from Vancouver’s formative years that he uncovered while researching his 2008 faux-historical novel, The Man Game, and discussed the book’s relation to the city.

It’s obvious Henderson has affection for Vancouver—surprising considering in 2003 he told the Globe and Mail, “I hate Vancouver—I hate everything about it.” Yet, he’s never left. “Sometimes you just hate where you live,” he tells me. “You’re just frustrated by it; that it’s not more of what you want it to be. Vancouver’s kind of a frustrating place. But I feel very at home here, too.”

One of Henderson’s recent short stories, “Long Live Annie B.,” takes place in Saskatoon, the city where he was born and, aside from a few childhood years spent in Calgary, raised. The title character’s west-side neighbourhood is described as crime ridden, prey to police brutality, and littered with drunks and depressing apartments with “white-painted steel bars over all the windows in all the rooms.” Henderson’s own childhood wasn’t as bleak, but he’s still not a hometown booster. “Moving back to Saskatoon [from Calgary]—it was like moving back to hell,” he says. “The city had a dark side to it that I didn’t like.”

Henderson is vague when asked about his family. He says only that his father’s interests lay in “new technology,” and that his mother worked in the Saskatoon library system. His maternal aunt, whom he describes as an “academic feminist historian,” wrote a biography of the author, feminist, and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, along with a number of children’s books (one dedicated to Lee, another to his younger sister, Alex).

A magazine article on the University of British Columbia’s film school inspired Henderson, at the age of nineteen, and a friend to pack up and drive to Vancouver, determined to “make it” in the film industry. “Vancouver always had that Shangri-La, very leftist identity, at least from Saskatoon’s point of view,” he says. “Toronto was more, ‘Get your shit together, get a job.’” But Vancouver in 1994 was far from a Shangri-La: “My first experience was seeing the Canucks riot,” he says, referring to the violence that erupted following the N.H.L. team’s Game 7 Stanley Cup loss to the New York Rangers that June. It was an interesting introduction to the city, and an experience Henderson would use when writing The Man Game, set a century earlier.

Henderson enrolled at U.B.C., but soon felt constrained by the high additional costs that came with a degree in film. He took some creative writing classes, and “loved the fact that you could do absolutely anything with no budget,” being a screenwriter, producer, and director all at once. He soon developed what one classmate called a “borderline labyrinthine” writing style, influenced by David Foster Wallace, Ben Marcus, and William Burroughs. “From his first piece on, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this kid is wildly talented,’” says the journalist and author Zsuzsi Gartner, one of Henderson’s instructors. The author Keith Maillard, who taught Henderson for four years during his undergraduate studies, and continued to work with him in graduate school, says, “If somebody said, ‘List me the most promising and interesting and edgy writing students you’ve had in twenty years,’ he would go on the list. His writing had such sparkle, and he was so committed to it.”

Maillard and Galloway, a former classmate, both recall Henderson submitting a writing assignment set at a New Year’s Eve party. “It was so good that the rest of the class ditched Lee afterward, went to the pub, and got smashing drunk out of shame,” says Galloway. “Every once in a while, when you have someone in a class who is obviously on a whole different level than you, it can be a bit depressing. But because Lee was nice, no one hated him for it.”

At the time, many writing students were leaving U.B.C. with degrees in one hand and book deals in the other. Henderson was no exception. His short story “Sheep Dub” was nominated for the Journey Prize in 2000, and he was offered a two-book deal by Penguin Canada before he even completed his master’s degree, in 2002. “[The story] felt so fully engaged, so visceral, from the language to its emotionalism,” says Barbara Berson, Henderson’s first editor at Penguin. “I had never read anything like it.”

Henderson’s first book, the short-story collection The Broken Record Technique, was published in 2002. In its opening story, “Attempts at a Great Relationship,” a man named Dave—no, Eaton—and the love of his life, a woman with curly red hair named Molly (with “eyes like jawbreakers”) attempt to rekindle their relationship at a wave pool one afternoon, only to get involved in the near-drowning of a young boy. From the story’s first line—“But it didn’t quite happen like that”—Henderson seems to be warning the reader that all is not right here, that what previously was thought to be true is a lie. Henderson would weave this feeling of uncertainty through many of the collection’s ten stories, and again in The Man Game.

The Broken Record Technique won the 2003 Danuta Gleed Award, given to the best Canadian first collection of short stories, and reviews were, for the most part, positive—though the late Derek Weiler, writing in the Toronto Star, argued, “Henderson’s ambitions consistently outstrip his technical abilities.” Each story in the collection, which includes tales of children wrestling in oversized sumo outfits and a boy and his talking toy marmot, was meant to test Henderson’s abilities. Every story was “like an experiment in trying to get it right,” he says in response to the Star review. “I’m always shooting for more than maybe I’m capable of.”

Henderson pushed his limits even further with The Man Game, the story of Molly Erwagen, a former vaudeville performer, who arrives in Vancouver from Toronto, in 1886, with her crippled husband, Sammy, to start a new life. Molly befriends two lumberjacks accused of starting Vancouver’s Great Fire, and together they devise a new sport called “the man game,”—a bizarre mix of street fighting, break dancing, and nude wrestling that becomes a citywide underground phenomenon. Molly’s story is told parallel to that of a young couple who stumble on a present-day man-game revival.

The Man Game took Henderson the better part of a decade to write, and weighs in at five hundred and thirteen pages. At times, Henderson struggled with the novel. One day, in 2003, he tossed out nearly everything he’d written up to that point—two hundred and fifty pages—and began again. He says he lost another two hundred and fifty to editing. There were days he thought he’d never finish. “A novel is such a strange thing to try to write,” he says. “You’re constantly searching for so many pieces at once: your characters and their motivations, and then the narrative, and where it begins, and voice, and you’ve got to marry all these things. It doesn’t always work the first time around. So much of the time I had such doubts about what the heck I was thinking.”

The book hit shelves in the summer of 2008, and reviews were hyperbolic: Brian Joseph Davis, writing in Toronto’s Eye Weekly, said The Man Game “may be the best (and most divisive) book ever written by a Canadian,” while Pasha Malla, in the Globe and Mail, described it as “phenomenally ambitious and artful….This is the sort of sprawling, innovative, exhilarating yet quintessentially Canadian novel that many of us have been waiting for. The Man Game is an absolute triumph.”

The novel was popular in Vancouver, where it won the City of Vancouver Book Award in 2009 and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. The Wilder Snail, a grocery store and coffee shop on the main floor of Henderson’s former apartment building, was, for a period, selling twenty copies a week. The Man Game now ties Henderson to Vancouver in the same way In the Skin of a Lion binds Michael Ondaatje to Toronto, or how the works of Mordecai Richler have become the gospels of Montreal. The Man Game reinvented, reinterpreted, and re-energized the city’s mythology.

Still, while the book was nominated for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, it failed to make the shortlists for either the Giller or the Governor General’s Literary Awards. “A travesty, really,” says Gartner. “It does make you wonder about the entrenched aesthetics of the rear guard.”

“Canada never really likes writers like Lee,” Galloway says. “They’ll like Lee when he does well in the States and Britain, which will happen at some point for him. We didn’t much like Yann Martel either until he won the Booker. Although, the people who like him love him. He’s got rabid fans.”

Henderson is hesitant to discuss the plot of his next novel, to be published by Penguin, tentatively in the spring of 2012. “It’s definitely about creativity,” is all he’s willing to say. Piecing together clues from various interviews, Henderson’s book seems to concern a comic book artist, San Francisco, and the nineteen-eighties, and shows no signs of a willingness to pander to the mainstream for the sake of awards. Nicole Winstanley, Henderson’s editor and publisher at Penguin, says, “The next novel is all things: it’s literary, it’s political, it’s playful, and it’s unexpected.”

The Toronto launch for The Man Game, in September of 2008, at the Gladstone Hotel, was standing-room only. The walls were adorned with the artwork of Vancouver expats like Keith Jones, Marc Bell, and Jason McLean, who’d recently fled to Toronto—a reverse of Molly and Sammy’s migration.

Henderson started the evening with an hour-long presentation on hip-hop and urban dance culture, peppered with various YouTube clips, and explained how it related to a novel set in turn-of-the-century Vancouver. “He knows more about rap than any white kid from Saskatchewan has the right to know,” laughs Galloway.

“It’s very rhetorical, very polemical, very self-conscious,” says Henderson, sounding more like an academic than a fan. “You just become fascinated with this kind of long poetic narrative that’s formed by the music over time, between the beats, the samples, the rappers, the culture, the contrast between the white males who listen to it and the black males who create it—all those divisions and things really fascinate me.”

Henderson may be fascinated, but he is also wildly fascinating, with an energy he feeds back into the aspects of local Vancouver culture he feels deserves and needs support. For two years Henderson co-organized a contemplative improv music night called Father Zosima Presents ….He also curates the Attaché Gallery, a portable venue that recently showcased the work of the artist Shayne Ehman, now living in Toronto, and the “dirty drawings” of Lucas Soi, which Henderson describes as “kind of satanic images based around his obsession with those ex-girlfriend sites on the Web.”

“Lee’s a genuine enthusiast,” says his friend, the author Sheila Heti. “I rarely hear him talk about things he does not like. And when he likes something, it’s the ‘best thing ever.’”

Friends recall the ubiquitous image of Henderson sitting in his window above the Wilder Snail, located at the corner of Hawks Avenue and Keefer Street, watching. “I had this little hawk’s-eye view of the street,” he says. It was so commonplace to see him there that he was nicknamed the Hawk Street Hawk. “He’d always be keeping an eye out on things,” says McLean. In much the same way, Henderson keeps an eye on the artists of the adopted city he can’t seem to decide if he loves or hates. “He’s always been so supportive of a certain community that’s never gotten any attention in Vancouver,” McLean says. “He’s really made a difference for a lot of us. In Vancouver, it seemed like everyone was following the footsteps you’re supposed to follow to make it, and he was being a voice in a different direction. He wasn’t following the direction you’re supposed to follow.”