There are a few things you can more or less count on to be true in a Jonathan Lethem book:
- The petty real estate developer is a callow, shallow person who has both more power and more sinister motives than someone that ridiculous should have.
- Gentrification is endemic and terrible, and there’s nothing any individual person can do to stop it.
- You can figure out almost anything worth knowing about a person through their musical taste.
- The protagonists’ radical parents have fucked them up.
- If anyone has superpowers, it doesn’t matter; the superpowers will not save you from the corrosive effects of capitalism.
Part of the pleasure of reading Lethem lies in seeing how he’s combined his particular preoccupations this time around, and whether the resulting universe is just dark or downright nihilistic. In Lethem’s latest novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, things get pretty close to pitch black — but that doesn’t stop them from being a hell of a lot of fun.
A Gambler’s Anatomy revels in the glamour of high-stakes gambling
Alexander Bruno, the hero of A Gambler’s Anatomy, is a professional backgammon player — a suave, mysterious, James-Bond-like figure who travels the world in his tuxedo, relieving the rich of their money. Backgammon, he says, has a certain purity: It doesn’t rely on bluffing, like poker, but because it incorporates dice, there’s an element of chance; you can’t plan your moves out in advance, like you can with chess.
The first third of A Gambler’s Anatomy is given over almost entirely to Bruno’s backgammon escapades, and it reads like a caper movie, all glamorous people in smoke-filled rooms, bantering over their high-stakes board game:
"Okay, Magister Ludi, I read you. You see nothing beyond the horizon of the board. Now I’m going to clamber into your minimalist Zen-master rock garden and we’ll see if I can muss your hair a little."
"I really have no idea what you’re talking about. May I fix myself a drink?"
"Your secret garden, your enclosure of enigma. The arena in which you pilot your fickle finger of backgammon fate. I’m calling your bluff, old sport, old pip, old cock."
Bruno, fixing himself a drink, rides his unruffled James Bond chill right through these scenes without ruffling a hair on his head. It’s fun to watch him in his element, taking his opponents for all they’re worth, in the same way it’s fun to watch Don Draper land an ad pitch: You’re watching someone who’s devoted his life to being suave and impressive be suave and impressive. But you also know he’s heading for a fall, the way you always know Don Draper is. He has to be.
Because Bruno has certain secrets. To begin with, he was poor as a child, following his mother from California hippie communes to homeless shelters (because the protagonist’s radical parents always fuck him up). And on the commune, in some unspecified manner, he developed telepathic abilities — or at least, he certainly thinks he did.
To compensate for his impoverished childhood, Bruno’s developed his "sole life accomplishment: his personality." He fled California and vowed never to return, choosing instead of live out his childhood fantasies of becoming an international man of mystery. On the combined strength of his high-cheekboned face and his backgammon ability, he’s built an entire persona of urbane charisma.
To save his life, Bruno has to destroy his face
But there’s an existential threat facing that persona. As the novel begins, Bruno learns that he’s developed a pre-cancerous tumor in the cavity of his skull, behind his face. To save his life, he’ll have to return to California to see a specialty doctor. And to add insult to injury, he’ll have to cut open his beautiful face.
The ensuing surgery is the novel’s most stunning and elaborate set piece. Bruno’s surgeon opens his face up like a door, and, to a soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix (because a person’s musical taste tells you everything there is to know about him), he slices out the tumor, "the flesh-crab that had squatted blackly in the scans."
Over 20 achingly detailed pages, the surgeon disassembles Bruno’s face and bears down into it, "into the paranasal and maxillary trenches, the nasopharynx, the orbital cavities, and into the tumor itself, the entrances he’d carved through its mass." The writing here is fleshy and vivid — not for the faint of heart — and it is the hinge on which the book turns.
Post-surgery, Bruno struggles to develop a new identity
Once Bruno’s face has been taken apart and then put back together, his entire persona changes, and so does the story he’s living in. Bruno’s no longer the beautiful and mysterious stranger in the tux, fleecing the rich in immaculate splendor. He becomes the weirdo in a medical mask and a Big Lebowski T-shirt, wandering in and out of burger shops in Berkeley.
He’s indebted to an old high school acquaintance who pays for his medical bills, a petty real-estate developer who turns out to have sinister motives (because the petty real estate developer is always sinister.) He starts hanging out with people who claim to be anarchists but are really in the pockets of gentrifiers (because no one can escape the corrosive influence of late capitalism).
Mostly, though, he lusts vaguely after various women with opaque motivations. Correspondingly, one of the recurring images of this book is women who are masked and shrouded except for their genitalia — or its inverse, women who are completely bare except for their covered genitals. If the imagery there is a little on-the-nose — do you get it, they’re like black and white backgammon pieces? — it’s no worse than using masks as the entry point for a meditation on the value of constructed personae. When the prose is this good, you can let that slide.
Over the course of the book’s final third, Bruno gropes for a way to create meaning out of his new persona, variously dubbing himself the Martyr of Anarchy and the Phantom of the Jack London. He experiments with getting political, and he experiments with the idea of falling in love. He takes a stab at doing something constructive with his telepathy, but of course, super powers can’t save anyone in a Jonathan Lethem novel.
A Gambler’s Anatomy is a gorgeous, thrilling Frankenstein’s monster
What stays consistent across the novel’s three acts — the glamorous high-stakes gambling world, the harrowing surgery, the anarchic Berkeley section — is Lethem’s assured, unshowy prose. He’s working in a noir style here, smoky and disaffected, and while his language rarely calls attention to itself, his imagery is precise and vivid.
The result is not exactly uplifting, but then Lethem’s books rarely are. That’s not why you go to him. You go to him to watch him take his world apart. And then he puts it back together until it becomes, like Bruno, "Frankenstein and his monster stitched together."