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The Broken Record Technique

by Lee Henderson

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.