The Broken Record Technique

by Lee Henderson
268 pages,
ISBN: 0141005688

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Quirky Characters in Intriguing Situations
by Geoff Hancock

The Broken Record Technique, an epigraph from The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook explains, is a psychological ploy which works by way of patient, repeated requests for what you want from someone who doesn't want to give it to you. Unfortunately, the psychologist adds, the technique rarely works within close relationships. Saskatoon native and UBC creative writing graduate Lee Henderson's The Broken Record Technique, presents quirky characters in intriguing situations in a thoughtful and technically innovative debut collection about close relationships wracked by anxieties, phobias, and the obstacles to clear communication.

I've always been keen on stories that challenge the traditional nature of character, find innovative shapes and patterns, and push the boundaries of realism. Henderson's flair for grabby titles or oddball characters makes amply clear this is a writer who wants to take risks. Especially appealing are the longings and desires Henderson exposes in very diverse characters: Boys wrestling in sumo costumes for the attention of their fathers in "Spines the Length of Velcro"; a boy whose birth deformity gave him a head shaped like a football in "The Unfortunate"; a saint-like, retarded singer who somehow communicates with a depressed man via TV in "Mirage/Fata Morgana"; a drag queen engaged in a homoerotic monologue in "Highlights of the young boy vs the ram". Henderson evinces sympathy for these unsophisticated, ignorant, or illiterate characters, trapped in their unresolved issues and capable of only rare flashes of understanding.

Henderson's deceptively simple prose¨with perhaps a few too many passive sentences of the 'there is' variety¨underlies artfully constructed stories. There are narratives with interior monologues, multiple viewpoints, instances of the Joycean stream of consciousness, and a novella. Several stories switch points of view halfway, and one, "Any number of reasons to act as one does, under the circumstances" even includes a beleaguered beagle who links two doomed lovers "picking at the detritus of their fantasies." Technique also salvages what might have been a routine domestic drama in "Attempts at a Perfect Relationship". Described from multiple viewpoints, like a documentary film, the story depicts a broken marriage as a young couple, stoned on hallucinogenic mushrooms, barely avert a tragedy at a mall swimming pool.

The strongest story, "The Runner After Cheever", is modelled loosely on Cheever's enigmatic masterpiece, "The Swimmer", of an Everyman swimming across his shortcomings, fears, and fantasies through suburban swimming pools. In Henderson's story, a man with a false leg attempts to run on every treadmill in every Vancouver gym, fantasizing a run, with odd echoes of Terry Fox, as he reconciles himself to the cancer death of his lover even as each step brings out unexpected emotions in himself.

I was perplexed by the longest piece, a not entirely satisfactory novella mysteriously entitled 'W'. The novella is usually a fine testing ground for a young writer; it's dramatic requirements, somewhat like those of a screenplay, allow for genre and a reasonable length. "W" is a breezy tale of a kidnapping of a boy by a double, a doppleganger, of the boy's father. The only witness is an electronic toy marmot whose batteries, real and emotional¨an imaginative leap is necessary here¨are running down. Dialogue is repetitive, the conclusion seems false, and that marmot doesn't talk to the police, the crisis intervention doctor, or other family members, all of whom are alone with their own thoughts. What is "W" attempting to say? Drawing some clues from the epigraph, by French philosopher Giles Deleuze and psychiatrist Felix Guattari, whose major works attack Freud's Oedipus complex, I began to get a sense of an underlying intent. Animals are even more emotionally acute than one's closest relations, goes one of Deleuze's arguments. For some future grad student, Henderson's subtext about fathers absent emotionally or physically and about the sensitivities of animals could, perhaps, make for an interesting piece of academic writing. I'm not all that impressed.

Aside from the novella, Lee's strong use of irony both underscores failing relationships and provides a fine definition of dramatic conflict with his eccentric, disconnected characters at the edges or undersides of suburban life in this assemblage of ten stories. ˛


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