One of the main characters in Jonathan Lethem’s 2009 novel, Chronic City, is a cultural critic called Perkus Tooth, who carries out his critic’s duties largely by sitting in his apartment smoking a lot of pot and sharing his theories on, among many other things, Semina Culture, J. Edgar Hoover, “Brando as sexual saint,” and the Futurist movement with the surprisingly awestruck narrator Chase Insteadman. (In his defense, Chase smokes a lot of pot too.)
Understandably, though, what strikes Chase as particularly odd about Perkus are his eyes. One is “orderly” and follows the traditional ocular method of looking directly at whatever Perkus wants to see. The other, variously described as “divergent,” “disobedient,” “crazy,” and “mutinous”—in fact given a different adjective whenever it’s mentioned—wanders about more randomly, apparently seeking “to discredit” Perkus’s “whole sober aura” by adding an element of playful mischief.
More than twenty years into Lethem’s career, it’s hard not to interpret Perkus Tooth’s eyes as emblematic of Lethem’s entire approach to fiction.1 Take, for instance, his literary tastes. In an essay that seemed designed to alienate—or at least tease—his more hipster fans, he once wrote that he’d “rather be stuck on a desert island with the collected works of Barbara Pym than those of Thomas Pynchon”; and that it was such resolutely orderly writers as Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, and Anita Brookner who shaped his “sense of what novels should feel like.” “I felt fashionable being asked about Pynchon and DeLillo,” he added, “but really had already gleaned what I’d need of political paranoia from Graham Greene,…and it was Greene’s sense of form…and [of] how to present a character, that seeped into my writing muscles.”2
Yet at the same time, Lethem is famously a long-standing champion of the distinctly divergent Philip K. Dick—to the point of editing Dick’s work for the Library of America. Nor are there many other literary novelists whose love of comic books has extended to writing a ten-issue revival of Marvel’s 1970s series Omega the Unknown.
The same dual vision is also there in Lethem’s own fiction, where straightforward realism is often combined with something more unruly, reckless, and antithetical—three more adjectives that are, in Chronic City, applied to Perkus’s rogue eye. Admittedly, in his early work the straightforward realism wasn’t hugely conspicuous. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), set out “to locate the exact midpoint between Dick and Chandler”—and very probably found it in the tale of an Oakland private eye tracking down a gangster kangaroo in a world of super-evolved animals and super-evolved narcotics. But even here, Lethem was careful to provide the old-school satisfactions of pace, character, and a plot more cogent than most of Chandler’s plots.
Next came three works of unabashed science fiction, complete with postapocalyptic wastelands (Amnesia Moon, 1995), black holes (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997), and the colonization of other planets (Girl in Landscape, 1998). Again, though, these also contained signs of more conventional literary ambitions—especially Girl in Landscape, in which the central character goes through wholly familiar rites of teenage passage, even when she’s inhabiting the body of a tiny extraterrestrial deer.
Such conventional ambitions were more fully realized in the first novel Lethem set in the place where he grew up: Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. It is at heart an orthodox piece of hard-boiled fiction, with a winningly affectionate sense of Brooklyn before gentrification. But it also has a narrator, Lionel Essrog, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and whose verbal tics keep bursting through.
One reason for this seems to be so that Lethem can make the sober point that we all have our tics—and that Lionel isn’t alone in having “no control in [his] personal experiment of self.” Another, however, appears to be simply to disrupt the narrative and therefore unsettle the reader. Tourette’s, suggests Lionel, “teaches you what people will ignore,…teaches you to see the reality-knitting mechanism people employ to tuck away the intolerable, the incongruous, the disruptive—it teaches you this because you’re the one lobbing the intolerable, incongruous, and disruptive their way”: a suggestion that feels like a direct challenge to any readers tempted to ignore the evocations of Tourette’s and just enjoy the crime story.
But ignoring the incongruous became far harder in Lethem’s next novel. The Fortress of Solitude (2003) draws heavily—and often thrillingly—on his childhood as one of the few white kids in what was then the rundown Brooklyn area of Gowanus (now hip Boerum Hill). Yet while much of the book is transparently rooted in autobiography, it seems safe to bet that the young Lethem never inherited a magic ring from a local homeless man who turned out to be a superhero down on his luck.
Even so, one critic did manage to ignore this incongruity—much to Lethem’s impressively prolonged disgust. Eight years after the review appeared, he wrote an essay lamenting that
James Wood, in 4,200 painstaking words, couldn’t bring himself to mention that my characters found a magic ring that allowed them flight and invisibility…. Whether you felt it sank the book or exalted it or only made it odd…—you simply couldn’t not mention this and have read the book at all.
Or rather, you couldn’t unless you were Wood.
Personally, of Lethem’s three proposed reactions, I’d favor the one about the ring making the book odd; but there’s also the question of why it’s there at all. In the same essay, Lethem explains that the novel “wrenches its own ‘realism’…into crisis by insisting on uncanny events”—and, happily for my purposes, “uncanny” is another adjective used about Perkus’s eye in Chronic City. What he doesn’t explain, though, is why he wanted the realism to be wrenched. Instead, it almost seemed as if uncanny events were becoming one of Lethem’s own tics—a possibility that Chronic City itself did little to dispel, by mixing its admittedly heightened picture of Upper East Side life with such things as a cloud of chocolate and a tiger two stories high on the loose in Manhattan.
For those of us who’d prefer our Lethem realism served neat, 2013 brought the welcome surprise of Dissident Gardens, the first sentence of which—“Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist Party”—echoed that of Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater (“Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over”). And not deceptively either, because the novel that followed was a stirring family saga about Jewish-American left-wingers, in which rollicking prose was combined with political analysis, and give or take the occasional dream sequence featuring Archie Bunker, the only uncanny events were from postwar US history. So could it be that Lethem had finally broken his addiction to the fantastical and would now live up to his claims to be an “extremely traditional writer”? Well, with A Gambler’s Anatomy, we have our answer—and it’s an overwhelming “no.”
Again, the first sentence is a clue, with “It was there when he woke up” taking us all the way back to Gun, with Occasional Music, which begins: “It was there when I woke up.” Sure enough, we’re once more in the world of the very strange—although in this case, a world that looks not unlike our own. (For much of the book, we’re also back in the Bay Area, but more of that later.) The trouble is that, while Lethem’s first novel, for all the sci-fi playfulness, had its own logic and coherence, his new one is so badly lacking in either that it feels as if he’s unwisely decided to write it using two divergent eyes. The routine description of Lethem’s methods is that he blends genres—but here the genres, and much else besides, seem not so much blended as arbitrarily thrown together.
The “it” of the first sentence refers to a blot afflicting the vision of the main character, Alexander Bruno. Otherwise, the novel opens like a James Bond story, with Bruno, who’d “been told he resembled Roger Moore,” making his tuxedoed way by ferry to the Berlin suburb of Kladow for a high-stakes game of backgammon with a rich man named Wolf-Dirk Köhler. Pausing only to flirt with a statuesque German blonde he meets on the boat, Bruno arrives at Köhler’s house, where he’s duly ushered into a room “insulated with leather volumes, plush furniture, oak paneling, all burnished in age and redolent of cigar.” At first, all goes to plan—which is to say that Bruno, a backgammon shark by trade, wins. But soon his luck changes drastically and after sandwiches have been served by a woman wearing only a shirt, shoes, and a zippered leather mask, he passes out on the carpet.
Already, however, there’s been a hint of even stranger things to come. Mid-flirt with the blonde, Bruno had sent her a message “in pidgin telepathy” just to check if she could pick it up—and when she doesn’t, “he was relieved. Alexander Bruno had forsaken thought transference years ago, at the start of puberty.”
Meanwhile, Köhler carries out his last action of the novel by ordering his driver to take Bruno to a Berlin hospital, where the staff, disappointed that he hasn’t had a stroke, quickly discharge him—although not before Bruno has remembered his unhappy childhood in Berkeley as the latest Lethem character to have had (like Lethem himself) a hippy mother. En route to the train station, he then collapses again, this time into a hole in the ground where he finds a small squarish cobblestone that, after he’s picked it up with his bloodstained fingertips, resembles a die—and that he interprets as much-needed proof “that he existed, here, now.”
Back at the hospital, a more thorough examination reveals that Bruno’s blot is caused by a large, possibly cancerous growth behind his face. The good news is that there’s one surgeon in the world who might be able to remove it. The bad news is that the surgeon works near Berkeley—which not returning to “was probably as near to a distinctive accomplishment as [Bruno] could claim in his life.” So, the doctor wonders, has he got any friends there who could help?
And as luck (maybe) would have it, Bruno does. In Part II, we learn in flashback that his Berlin visit was preceded by a backgammon trip to Singapore, where he’d bumped into Keith Stolarsky, who’d been a year behind him at Berkeley High. These days, Stolarsky may be “a forty-seven-year-old wreck,” but he owns half of Telegraph Avenue. Nevertheless, his sense of rivalry with Bruno—much the cooler of the two at high school—is so undiminished that he spends a night online boning up on backgammon, challenges Bruno to a match, and, amid much cocaine-snorting, beats him easily. (Another curious aspect of the book is that, for a much-vaunted pro, Bruno never seems very good at the game.)
Despite his hostility—sometimes latent, sometimes not—Stolarsky does agree to fly the bankrupt Bruno from Berlin to San Francisco and to pay for his surgery. He also meets him at the airport, clothes him from one of his stores, and houses him in one of his apartment buildings—all while being relentlessly unpleasant, in a paradox that baffles Bruno, us, and apparently Lethem too:
The sarcastic, grubby entrepreneur, who’d agreed to pretend to a long history of friendship with Bruno based on a trifling familiarity, and then paid for Bruno’s ticket out of pity, had nonetheless no pity in him.
More gratifyingly, Bruno soon discovers how unpopular Stolarsky is in Berkeley—not least with the neighborhood anarchist Garris Plybon, suitably employed at a burger joint called Kropotkin’s.
The operation on Bruno’s face is performed by Noah Behringer, who—perhaps confirming Lethem’s greater willingness to stereotype Californians than New Yorkers—comes equipped with a beard, ponytail, and sandals. Less predictably, Behringer carries out the fourteen-hour surgery by peeling back Bruno’s face so that it hangs from his chin like “a beard of meat.” During the operation, he also demands to hear his team’s sexual secrets and listens to hours of Jimi Hendrix, imagining that he’s saving the life of “the epochal Negro guitarist” rather than Bruno’s.
Nonetheless, the operation is a success. Bruno’s face is scarred enough to need a mask, but the growth and blot are gone. The only snag is that his pesky telepathy has reappeared. His preferred solution is that Behringer stitch the cobblestone die behind his face to act as some sort of thought-shield—but not surprisingly Behringer refuses. And with that, having dominated the novel for fifty pages, he follows Köhler’s example by vanishing from it completely.
At which point, matters take a turn to the implausible. The German woman from the ferry—whom Bruno now knows was also the bottomless sandwich server—has been in contact with him, and when he invites her to Berkeley she immediately accepts. Once she arrives, it looks for a while as if we’re in for a straight, somewhat schmaltzy love story, with “Madchen’s unfathomable faith in him…like a diamond found in a field of mud.” (And “unfathomable” is definitely the right word here.) But then…well, a bunch of other random stuff happens—including Stolarsky’s metamorphosis into a full-blown Bond villain, a riot caused by police overreaction to people in masks using ATMs, and Bruno and Plybon having a mid-riot game of backgammon using burgers as checkers and the Kropotkin grill as the board.
At first glance, the last of these might seem the most random of all. Yet it appears to have been the genesis of the entire book. In April last year, Lethem mentioned that the novel he was then working on “is an elaborate excuse to write about a vision of two men playing backgammon on a grill, with hamburgers as the checkers.”
Faced with that, you’d have to say that his mission was accomplished—but at a surely Pyrrhic cost. Not only is A Gambler’s Anatomy almost totally free of recognizable human motivation, but it also picks up and drops its various threads with remarkable carelessness—most strikingly, the telepathy. The post-op Bruno continues to maintain that he can read minds again. But if so, it’s an ability that he doesn’t put to much use when he needs it most with Stolarsky and Madchen.
In view of Lethem’s literary standing, it’s tempting to look for reasons why A Gambler’s Anatomy is such a mess—and if you’re feeling generous, a couple may come to mind. One is that the book’s episodic arbitrariness is intended as a reflection of backgammon itself3—in which, as Bruno reflects, “unlike chess…no genius could foresee twelve or thirty moves in advance. Each backgammon position was its own absolute and present circumstance.” Unfortunately, even if that was the idea, it doesn’t make the experience of reading the book any more satisfying—or any less wearisome.
A second kindly thought is that another thing Lethem has learned from Graham Greene is to divide his books into novels and entertainments, and that this is one of the entertainments. After his more cultish early success, Lethem has always appeared ambivalent about his growing status as a “major novelist,” or what he calls a literary “White Elephant”: a concept taken from Manny Faber’s 1962 essay “White Elephant vs. Termite Art.” “Somewhere between accepting an award for Motherless Brooklyn and the putting across of The Fortress of Solitude,” he once wrote,
I clambered into a White Elephant suit…. White Elephants still seemed obliged to blunder around acting Authoritative, scorning opportunities for playfulness…. So I’ve teased, haplessly, at disqualifying my own elephant function [with] extracurricular activities and deliberate “minor works.”
More specifically, in 2007, Lethem published You Don’t Love Me Yet, a novel about an amateur LA rock band, and by general agreement his weakest (at least until now). After the unmistakably major The Fortress of Solitude, he later explained,
it struck me that I’d become a very responsible novelist. And so I conceived You Don’t Love Me Yet as a cavalier gesture…a book that was…overtly ludicrous and giddy and… was never going to be something where you could say, “Well, this is an important book….” Many people feel clearly it’s my worst book, which in a way it was almost conceived to be.
The problem here, though, is that even if you do accept the novel/entertainment division in Lethem’s work, A Gambler’s Anatomy ends up falling between two stools. On the one hand, there are sporadic hints that Lethem may have been aiming not merely at overtly ludicrous entertainment but at something more serious-minded about say, contemporary radical politics, the boundaries of the self, or the crucial part played by luck in human life—themes that, like so much in the book, remain underdeveloped, confused, or both. On the other, there’s the awkward fact that, considered purely as entertainment, the novel isn’t remotely entertaining enough. Instead, the overall effect is of a haphazard bundle of incidents that recall the line in Chronic City about some especially fine pot reducing the narrator’s memories to “a series of particulate elements strung incoherently in the void.” Or more simply, the one in A Gambler’s Anatomy about Bruno’s cocaine experience in Singapore—where “nothing made enough sense to matter.”
And hard not to think that when one character in Dissident Gardens (2013) regards a contrasting mother and daughter as “his compass—if a compass could have two needles, one abiding, the other flying off to parts unknown,” Lethem clearly thinks a (metaphorical) compass could. ↩
In what felt slightly like a game of How Far Can You Go?, the essay also expressed a preference for the British Angry Young Men over the Beats. ↩
The novel is also divided into parts that go from one to two to four to eight etc., like a doubling cube in backgammon. ↩