Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review: A Gambler's Anatomy

A Gambler's Anatomy A Gambler's Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If I’m not Jonathan Lethem’s biggest admirer, I’m in the team photo. I maintain that his Chronic City is the novel of the decade. I admired his most recent, Dissident Gardens, enough to do some academic work on it. And I have read and loved most of his novels and a good chunk of his nonfiction. As far as I was concerned, he could do almost anything, with the possible exception of writing a bad novel.

I can’t call A Gambler’s Anatomy a bad novel, but I do find it the most disappointing Lethem I’ve ever read. I was excited about the exotic nature of its backdrop of professional backgammon playing, and it’s striking to see how the New-York-centered writer has responded to his move to the West Coast, but the interesting pieces don’t quite come together here. The quirky joy and the skill of making esoterica come to broader life are missing here. This is a novel pushing toward a point, but it’s a point I find depressing and – in the end – less original than I expect from Lethem.

Alexander Bruno is a professional backgammon player before he discovers he’s seriously ill with a tumor between his face and brain. Backgammon makes perfect sense for him because he is someone who recognizes the power of luck (represented by the dice) but believes that skill can overcome it (represented by the capacity to win even in the face of fickle dice). Healing the tumor necessitates radical surgery; he literally has his face removed and then replaced. His head is opened to the world (his surgeon speaks of “opening a door that’s never been opened”) and then it’s closed again.

That central operation seems both a metaphor and a literal statement. On the one hand, Bruno is exposed to the surgeon and to others. People think they can see into him after the surgery, and he becomes a kind of Rorschach figure for the would-be radicals of Berkeley. On the other hand, removing the tumor restores Bruno’s childhood capacity for reading minds. It gives him back a power he thinks he tried to get rid of, unconsciously, by forming the tumor in the first place.

All of that sounds interesting, and it certainly keeps the novel from being a disaster, but the cold, clinical quality of that equation permeates the whole novel. There are other interesting characters, most of all Keith Stolarsky, Bruno’s high school friend who’s gone on to establish himself as the “Darth Vader” of Berkeley’s hippest neighborhoods, but they all seem like types. They do striking things – Stolarsky pays hundreds of thousands of dollars for the surgery; Stolarsky’s girlfriend wants to sleep with Bruno while Stolarsky figuratively watches them; and the German prostitute Madchen happily crosses the Atlantic to be with Bruno after having met him only once months before. But it’s never clear why they do the things they do. This feels too much like a Bruno-centric universe, a story contrived to make a point rather than to explore how different perspectives clash.

And the point is pretty straightforward: it’s adolescent to imagine real agency, real revolution is possible. We may think our skill can push against the hand we’re dealt (or the rolls of the dice that come our way), but, in the end, inequity reigns. Stolarsky has all the money, and he – capable of reading minds as well – gets everything he wants. Some resist him with a sense of what his game is – Plybon establishes Kropotkin’s Burgers as a challenge to Stolarsky’s business empire, but Stolarsky owns it as well – and others push back only to find they’re still ‘following orders.’ That’s Bruno’s case; in the end, Stolarsky simply restores Bruno to the impregnable gambler he was to start. With the mind-reading it’s now poker rather than blackjack, but it amounts to the same thing. And it’s for the benefit of the same man, Edgar Falk, Bruno’s longtime handler. (I get the impression Stolarsky has orchestrated the whole thing to benefit Falk, another of the user/abuser of others, but that isn’t clear.)

This is ultimately a frightened book. It asserts that people with talent will always be subject to the machinations of those who understand the market better, those who publish, produce, or fund art. It has none of the staggering joy of Fortress of Solitude, when we see characters able suddenly to fly, or Motherless Brooklyn where Lionel Esrog’s impairment is simultaneously a source of inspiration and difference.

This is also a more mechanical-seeming book. Where Lethem’s New York novels give evidence of someone who knows the world of which he writes, this one feels researched. (We get a list of all the medical experts who helped with the surgical background, but it feels as if we could just as easily have gotten a list of who helped him with the history of Berkeley. It all feels studied, researched. It may be my imagination, but it reminds me of someone who’s been somewhere for a year and is quick to give a brand new arrival a scrupulous history of the place.)

As I read, I kept hoping a switch would flip, and I’d feel that Lethem feeling, that sense that I’m in the hands of someone really smart who’s set a literary trap for me. Instead, I find a novel where we see a smart protagonist trapped by forces larger than he is. A gambler ought to know: the house always wins. When that happens, as it does here, the capacity for creativity loses. There’s great skill here – I assume there always will be with Lethem – but the scheme and inspiration fall far short of the extraordinary work he’s given us over the last twenty-plus years.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment