- A Gambler’s Anatomy
- Jonathan Lethem
- 289 pages
Reading A Gambler's Anatomy, I found myself reckoning with a glum reality: I don't really like Jonathan Lethem any more. At some point, the arc of his literary career and that of my interest, which once ran pretty much parallel, began to diverge along different axes.
I haven't read any of Lethem's novels since 2007's You Don't Love Me Yet, a slight story about an L.A. alt-rock band that suffered from the alienating feeling of an author leeringly observing a scene he's never really been immersed in, as with Tom Wolfe circa I Am Charlotte Simmons. Whether Lethem's writing has actually sagged and slumped, or my interest in it has just waned – a matter of maturation, or even just the fickle mutations of taste – I'm not 100-per-cent sure. But my sense is that both things are true.
A Gambler's Anatomy is the story of Alexander Bruno, a professional backgammon player. "With his height and high cheekbones," as Lethem describes Bruno, "he'd been told he resembled Roger Moore, or the bass player from Duran Duran."
The book opens in Berlin, a "city of dubious refuge," marked by "its graffiti and construction sites, its desultory strips of parkland and naked pink water pipes" and its "the prevailing silence and gloom derived from remorse and privations not 70 years past but fresh as smouldering rubble." One gets the feeling that Lethem has visited the city for a week and has bought whole-hog into the gloomy backpacker's romance of Berlin. (N.B.: I am qualified to make such assessments as I spent two whole weeks in the German capital earlier this year.)
During a high-stakes game in the manse of a well-heeled German, Bruno suffers a massive nosebleed precipitated by a nasty crab-like tumour nested smack in the middle of his face. Bruno flees Berlin for Berkeley, Calif., to have his tumour removed by an eccentric surgeon who cranks Jimi Hendrix records in the operating room. The surgery, and Bruno's length recovery, is paid for by a childhood friend, Keith Stolarsky, whose generosity seems suspect, and who hangs over the novel as a kind of all-seeing Big Brother figure, retaining salesclerks and short order cooks to keep an eye on Bruno.
The surgery itself is a success. "The face," explains the narrator, "wasn't bad. It wasn't Alexander Bruno as he'd been before and it wasn't not-Bruno either, but a fascinating amalgam." The operation as the side-effect of leaving Bruno a) slightly disfigured, which leads to his adopting a medical mask and hooded sweatshirt getup; and b) reacquainted with psychic gifts he enjoyed as a younger man, but which the tumour had effectively stymied. From there, the book becomes a kind of low-key meditation on identity, as Bruno attempts to hide from the world (and himself) as he tries to figure out his role in big-shot Keith Stolarsky's master plan.
A Gambler's Anatomy is a novel with a few fine moments: the backgammon matches, especially the impromptu showdown staged with meat patties on the flat-top grill of a burger restaurant, are especially memorable. In another, Lethem describes the feeling of having a flirtatious conversation railroaded by an intruding third party, the recognizable moment when "the banter ended, as if dropped off a cliff. Along with it, the confessional atmosphere and the raw sexual taunting, each of which had floated just beneath the banter, fronds in a murky pool."
Yet, there's something too self-consciously pop-y about Lethem's latest. In one terrific scene, Bruno outfits himself with a new wardrobe, including a stack of T-shirts emblazoned with a man's face and the word ABIDE. It's a sly irony: The reader knows what it means, but the character doesn't. There is a subtle, winking pathos, that someone could find comfort in the wry, smiling face of Jeff Bridges's character from The Big Lebowski, oblivious to the manner in which that face, and the film itself, have become near-ubiquitous markers of a certain kind of taste, one that is itself defined largely by a self-styled wryness and irony. It's like the scene in Cormac McCarthy's The Road where, against the backdrop of the collapse of capitalism and consumerism, father and son enjoy a can of Coca-Cola qua itself.
Trouble is Lethem spoils the irony. A character expounds on The Big Lebowski and it's as if Lethem himself merely wants to (over)flex his own pop-cultural muscle. The references to Hendrix, Duran Duran, Star Wars and pot-smoking 40-aughts further hammer home the sense that A Gambler's Anatomy is built in large part as a spot-the-reference beach read for savvy boomers. Where Lethem's earlier works – Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude – were similarly engaged with highly particularized pop milieus, they also felt like they were "about" something. They felt, for lack of a better phrase, like "proper literature."
Then again, perhaps such haughty sizing-ups of "peak Lethem" were just the enthusiastic overpraising of a younger reader (i.e. me). Perhaps Lethem has only ever been a pop pastiche artist with an eccentric intelligence and a penchant for a witty turn of phrase. And if that's the case then, well, the dude abides.