The greatest strengths in the canon of Jonathan Lethem might also be the source of his weaknesses. He's a brilliant book critic, interviewer, and cultural essayist (The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc., 2011), a novelist who can easily manage the epic genre worlds of crime fiction and fantasy (Motherless Brooklyn, 1999), and an editor who has stopped at nothing to champion the prolific output of Philip K. Dick and the great worlds of comics and music writing.
Indeed, Lethem wanders through many worlds and seems to understand all of them. Does he spread himself too thin? Is he more stylist than focused storyteller? In A Gambler's Anatomy, there are moments of pure genius and sheer mastery of form that will maintain Lethem's status as one of our greatest stylists while at the same time frustrating even his strongest followers that a tight narrative can't (or won't) be smoother. Sometimes, however, an excess of control and vision can get in the way of minor flaws and blemishes that make great American novels so thrilling.
This might seem like a strange way to begin what is otherwise a positive review. Lethem is one of our finest novelists, a writer who has worked in many different forms and never failed to demonstrate an insatiable curiosity for how they work. Can there be risky results to insatiable curiosity? Certainly. In A Gambler's Anatomy, our hero Alexander Bruno is a backgammon master who travels the world making good money by tapping into the vulnerability and fragile egos of his competitors, ambitious yet failed competition he refers to as "whales". An early one, referred to Bruno by his manager Edgar Falk, is described like so:
"Marks, hemophiliac free-spenders, gamblers of miscalibrated vanity: These appeared before him in an assortment of human containers. A whale might resemble a whale or a minnow."
The reader's connection to whatever is at risk in A Gambler's Anatomy will more likely than not depend on their familiarity with an understanding of backgammon's machinations. Lethem understands the structure of the game and the way a competitor's surroundings will reflect their potential winnings and likely losses. This first whale, Wolf-Dirk Köhler, is an easy mark for Bruno, especially when he sees "…the rich man's study, books pedantically flush to each shelf's lip, dustless crystal decanters of ancient scotches, heavy curtains making the room a womb of comfort."
Lethem is a rich, generous writer, but the reader opening A Gambler's Anatomy as their introduction to his work might become overwhelmed. It's all there, clearly illustrated and planned out. Lethem wastes no time in expressing the particular strengths of Alexander Bruno's chosen game and how it stands alone from the other games of duplicity and devious dominance:
"Backgammon's beauty was its candidness… no hidden cards, no bluff… Each backgammon position was its own absolute and present circumstance, fated to be revised, impossible to falsify."
While this is exciting, and Lethem has done his research, even the most patient and indulgent reader might become restless, but they should stay the course. World creators and atmosphere builders and master craftsmen are at their best when they balance the art direction of their stories with character building. It's in this sense that Lethem seems most connected with the worlds of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, who understood that a beautifully decorated house and rich background texture are nothing without characters in whom we are willing to invest our time. Alexander Bruno is a young hero who was abandoned early by his mother and destined (it seems) to a peripatetic life of a man with neither country nor home. His was a San Rafael childhood of "…hippies at vast smoky dinners, their voices and wide-open minds seeming to overrun his boundaries and communal outdoor showers where women other than his mother herded him with gangs of muddy children for scrubbing."
Time is running out for our hero, who has been diagnosed with meningioma, a tumor of the central nervous system. That he has been able to travel the world and drain the bank accounts of vain competitors seems to be reflective of the fact that he has never had roots, never been established. He's nearing the half-century mark in his life and that dark floating blot in the center of his eyesight growing larger. Bruno's "manager" might also be seen as his pimp, draining his client as Bruno drains his whales. This is not a world where people look after each other's best interests, and Lethem understands his greatest strengths are building scenes and molding them into a strong foundation.
A Gambler's Anatomy is less about the fact that its hero's corporeal status is fading than it is about making decisions at crossroads. In the opening scene, set in Berlin, Bruno's game with Köhler is in our hero's favor. His winnings reach $36k. When his luck turns is another example of Lethem's mastery of the precise narrative. Everything is broken and nothing will be repaired. An old-time Fletcher Henderson jazz recording is played on a phonograph. Bruno's nose starts to bleed. A leather-clad dominatrix notices, but she doesn't intrude. The tiny shrimp sandwiches and world-weary atmospherics vanish when reality intrudes and Bruno is rushed to the hospital.
There's pure brilliance in the long midsection of A Gambler's Anatomy, where Lethem takes us into the particular and minute details of doctors identifying and removing a tumor found at the center of Bruno's skull. There are few fiction writers (perhaps John Irving, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth among the most notable) who have so carefully and compellingly incorporated the methodical process of risky surgeries into their narratives, and Lethem has certainly done due diligence to his subject here. (It's not a coincidence that eight doctors are thanked, including Dr. Atul Gawande, whose bestselling Being Mortal examined the intersection between proper ethical practices and compassionate practices.) Bruno's face is carefully pulled down, the cancerous tumor mass is removed from behind his eyeballs, and a new life is faced by a man who had heretofore not had to encounter much more than just identifying the next easy backgammon foe.
It's from this point that Alexander Bruno has to encounter (or literally and figuratively "face") a new world. He slips back into the world he seemed to have mastered, but now he dons medical masks that wrap around his entire head. Lethem paints these masks as Mexican wrestler's costumes without the colorful decorative qualities. They're like band-aids covering up a new face, a new life, a different identity that will serve him better in the lower-class West Coast world where he finds himself. His hospital bills and rent are covered by a patron with vested interests in mind as Bruno's bank account drains and options for financial recovery prove few and far between.
There is pathos, humanity, and failed attempts at romance initiating from Bruno to the rest of the world as he faces a new life with a face still in progress, a face not yet comfortable enough to be revealed to the public. He was "…a performer designated to appear in a mask." This section of the novel will remind Lethem fans of the lefty political battles that dominated his recent New York novel Dissident Gardens as Bruno gravitates toward a non-violent group called ABIDE. Bruno reflects on how he has transformed:
"He'd wear the mask for their nonviolent social experiment, yes. But it was the last time. Overnight Bruno had become cruelly handsome, more striking than before the opening of his face's door. He wished to hear someone call him Flashman, though there was no way to explain this."
Here's another example where the reader who has only made a shallow entry into the Lethem pool risks frustration. The Flashman was a 1969 British novel from the perspective of the bully in Tom Brown's Schooldays. Alexander Bruno seems to have aspired to such an alternate life and identity, but the reader might feel lost. This is not to say that Lethem should be obliged to inform readers of his source material, to provide an appendix or David Foster Wallace-styled footnotes, but context would help.
As is, and in spite of some misgivings (especially from the perspective of a loyal Lethem reader), A Gambler's Anatomy is a strong novel featuring another unique male character caught up in a world of masks and dark places. It might not fit comfortably in the world of contemporary American fiction, but that's never seemed to be Lethem's mission. A Gambler's Anatomy will take some time, and there's a cold patina to the narrative that can prove hard to crack, but again, removing that has probably never been a priority for Lethem, and it's certainly not an obligation. Equal degrees of patience and forgiveness will reward the reader of A Gambler's Anatomy and reveal that this story of a board game master is irresistible.