Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, A Gamblers Anatomy, flits through so many plots it’s hard to figure out what type of book it is. Is it a flashy tale of an international gambler? A medical drama? A critique of Anonymous? A meditation on Berkeley? A satire on modern culture?
All of them?
Lethem decides to go with all of them.
A Gambler’s Anatomy follows Alexander Bruno, professional backgammon player, as he navigates a run of bad luck, an illness that may prove terminal, the romantic attentions of two very different women, and, most complicated of all, an uneasy relationship with an old high school acquaintance who suddenly becomes central to Bruno’s life. Will Bruno survive his illness? Will he survive going home to Berkeley? And what are we to make of this novel, that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be?
Alexander Bruno begins the story as a handsome, dapper, seemingly untouchable professional backgammon player, wearing a tux, standing on a ferry in Germany, flirting with a beautiful woman. He had a terrible childhood, and when he left his hometown of Berkeley immediately after high school, he never looked back. Bruno seems to be a man who has built himself from the outside in, and one of his big mental building blocks is the idea that he worked his way out of an impossible situation, and is now free of his past.
Obviously no one is ever free of their past.
Bruno has a chance run-in with an old high school classmate, Keith Stolarksy, in a gambling den in Singapore. Stolarsky seems genial enough at first, and Bruno looks down on him for being nouveau riche without thinking about the fact that he himself is not riche at all. He also begins to nurse an interest in Stolarsky’s girlfriend. Stolarsky meanwhile, teaches himself backgammon and challenges Bruno to a match. Bruno goes in intending to show Stolarsky a good time before schooling him, but it turns out that Bruno can’t control luck.
Bruno next runs into a terrifying medical emergency that probably produces the best section of the book. I don’t want to give the details away, but Bruno’s condition, and his response to it, make for gripping reading. There’s a grisly fifteen-hour long operation (essentially the centerpiece of the book) that I absolutely loved reading, but if you’re made queasy by blood and gore…you might want to skim this bit.
As each of Bruno’s trappings is stripped from him, the reader has to wonder—is there more under there? Is there a person under all of these tricks? Lethem shifts back and forth between presenting Bruno as a wounded person who inspires a ton of empathy, and a cypher. The characters he meets seem to fall in line with stereotypes: loudmouth businessman; shallow anarchist; desperate housewife. Do any of these people have personalities? Do any of us? Lethem’s book often seem to ask whether people have any bedrock of self at all, or whether we’re all just collections of masks, swapping faces and identities as necessary.
As Motherless Brooklyn and Chronic City were both studies of New York, so A Gambler’s Anatomy is largely about a few square blocks of Berkeley, California. There is one brief sojourn to San Francisco, but otherwise the actions of Alexander Bruno are bounded by Amoeba, the Berkeley Campus, the Caffe Mediterraneum (birthplace of the latte!) and People’s Park—which looms large in Bruno’s personal history.
Of all the potential plots the book toyed with, the one I expected least was extended meditation on whether you can in fact go home again. In my own experience, I left home and built a life for myself in New York. Several of my friends left for a time, before going back and settling back near home. A few stayed for a while, and left later for love or money. A few of them never left at all. These choices were all shaped by money and luck, and in turn shaped who we partnered up with, whether we had children, what careers we went into, even our health. It’s always interesting to look at our various lives and see where people have ended up, and how their experiences have changed them. Since Bruno is a professional gambler who tries to be a blank slate, it’s impossible to chart how his trajectory through the book changes him. He begins the book priding himself on getting out, as though that in itself was an accomplishment. But when he ends up entangled with Stolarsky, who has built a real-estate empire and now owns half of Berkeley, the nature of success itself is called into question. Who is the successful one? Bruno has gained class, style, and ignored modern pop culture in favor of a classic glamour that would be at home in a Wes Anderson film. Stolarsky is crass, unkempt, and buys his way through the world without learning anything…but then, he doesn’t need to learn anything. His money has brought him the power to set his own rules and standards.
The two men spend part of the book locked in a weird, opaque battle that leads to the night of violence that might decide not just Bruno’s fate, but also that of his old hometown.
Now why is this book in Genre in the Mainstream you might ask?
Well, first of all there’s a character who might be a vampire. This is left ambiguous, which I think works well for the book.
But more importantly, and ultimately more problematically for me, throughout the book Bruno implies that he has psychic abilities. He claims that his mother’s old guru nurtured this ability, he occasionally tries to probe other character’s minds, and later worries that his medical emergency that strikes him makes the ability uncontrollable. Lethem dances around whether this talent is real of not—Bruno never doubts it, but that doesn’t mean anyone else believes in it. There are moments when it seems real, and moments when it seems that Bruno is the least reliable narrator since Humbert Humbert. Now I really hate reviewing books based on what I wanted them to be rather than what they are, but having said that, I think there is a fascinating book dancing on the edges of this one. While I found Lethem’s satire of Berkeley, filled with anarchists who live off their parents’ bank accounts and burger-flipping philosophers, astute and fun, I also thought that exploring Bruno’s psychic talents, seemingly the one part of his personality that he holds onto throughout the book, would have given the story a stronger spine. Plus the chapters that hint that his abilities are real are some of the most compelling in the novel, so it would have been fun to spend more time with those ideas.
This book follows so many interesting tangents, and, particularly in its middle section, offers so many strange pleasures, that I think most fans of GITM titles will consider it an entertaining read. I just wish Lethem had gone full weird on us, because I think an even better version of A Gambler’s Anatomy is waiting in the margins of this story.
A Gambler’s Anatomy is available from Knopf Doubleday.