Jonathan Lethem A Gambler’s Anatomy (Doubleday, 2016)

by Mark Bresnan

Jonathan Lethem is much cooler than me. I admit that without bitterness or sarcasm. Reading Lethem’s novels and essays sometimes feels like snooping through the eclectic bookshelves at your impossibly hip friend’s new condo: here’s the Criterion edition of McCabe & Mrs. Miller; there’s an art book about Fred Tomasselli. Where did he find original pressings of all of those Mingus albums? Do you admit that you’ve only read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as you browse his collected works of Philip K. Dick? Who shelves copies of Omega the Unknown between G.K. Chesterton and Shirley Jackson?

You can imagine my delight, then, when I recognized the T-shirt that Alexander Bruno purchases in Lethem’s tenth novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy before the character himself understands what it means: “The shirt depicted a middle-aged man, bearded, with soulful brow and bemused mouth, above the single word ABIDE.” That’s The Dude, dude! Finally, I can pit my cultural knowledge against Lethem’s with confidence — as least as it applies to the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski. So when we learn that Bruno is working under the behest of a mysterious benefactor who lives in the hills above Berkeley, I see Lethem’s reference to the real Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire who tries to rope the Dude into a complicated and corrupt scheme. I can’t decide whether the role of Maude is played by Tira Harpaz or Madchen Abplanalp, but I understand that their sexual overtures to Bruno probably have an ulterior motive. When Bruno starts taking part in the meetings of a bumbling socialist-anarchist Berkeley collective, I have to admit that, unlike the nihilists in Lebowski, at least they’ve got an ethos.

Like The Dude, an author of the original Port Huron Statement (“not the compromised second draft”), Bruno’s identity is shaped by the American counter-culture of the 1960s. While he is too young to have directly experienced the Summer of Love, Bruno shapes his life as a conscious rejection of his mother, who raised him in a commune before rejecting her guru and embedding herself in Berkeley’s drug culture. Rather than following in her footsteps, Bruno leaves home and seeks guidance from his manager at Chez Panisse, a fine-dining bulwark insulated from Berkeley’s revolutionary stirrings. Konrad, a former ballet dancer and “proud accentless Polish émigré,” teaches Bruno how to wear a “cloak of unapproachability.” Unlike the hippies in People’s Park, Bruno is much more interested in self-abnegation than in self-expression: “In the process of layering performance onto the outside of his container, Bruno could forget what his container disguised.” As so often happens in Lethem’s fiction, the metaphorical becomes the real, and when we meet Bruno his distaste has become a literal blind spot that he unwisely ignores.

Both Bruno’s distaste for revolutionary Berkeley and Lethem’s pop-culture references might fuel a familiar complaint about the contemporary novel: that it turns away from (and at times even mocks) genuine political engagement in the favour of meaningless performance. James Woods’ critique of “hysterical realism” is perhaps the best known iteration of an argument that traces back to rejections of high postmodernism – and especially relevant to Lethem given his criticism of The Fortress of Solitude (a review that itself sparked Lethem’s rebuttal essay “My Disappointment Critic.”) Pointing to the maximalist literary blockbusters that dominated the 1990s (White Teeth, Infinite Jest, Underworld, Mason & Dixon), Woods suggests that to celebrate these books as delightful “cabinet[s] of wonders” is to underestimate what well-crafted literary fiction can do: “The mere existence of a giant cheese or a cloned mouse or several different earthquakes in a novel is seen as meaningful or wonderful, evidence of great imaginative power. And this is because too often these features are mistaken for scenes, as if they constituted the movement or the toil or the pressure of the novel, rather than taken for what they are—props of the imagination, meaning’s toys.”

I don’t presume that Lethem will ever win Woods over, but the opening chapters of A Gambler’s Anatomy demonstrate his ability to produce and control “the pressure of the novel” as well as any of his contemporaries. In a taut set of scenes, Bruno, a professional, plays backgammon against German millionaire Wolf-Dirk Kohler for a thousand euros a point. The key question for Bruno is not whether he can outplay his opponent — the mismatch is evident from the opening game. Instead, it is how far he can push the stakes, keeping his catch on the line as he fattens from a minnow to a whale. Bruno’s primary tool is the doubling cube: “In contrast to poker, there were no hidden cards, no bluff. [. . . ] The game’s only true gambling device, the doubling cube, served an expression of pure will.”

This act of doubling—continually raising the stakes—is also the novel’s organizing principle: the nine sections are titled “One,” “Two,” “Four,” “Eight,” “Sixteen,” “Thirty-two,” “Sixty-four,” “Gammon,” and “Backgammon,” and each of these sections is itself divided into four parts, corresponding to the four quadrants of the gameboard. As the novel continues, Lethem applies more and more pressure to his characters, and Bruno’s desire to float along playing rich fools for money is diverted into a different game with much higher stakes. Ultimately, this pressure drives Bruno back to Berkeley and into the same sort of politically rebellious collective he has spent his whole life trying to escape. That group’s attempt to meaningfully disrupt the driving pressures of contemporary American urban life—corporatism, gentrification, and individualism—is the operative question of the novel’s second half. What is the power of “pure will” against such forces?

Lethem’s skillful genre-bending is the hallmark of his fiction, and A Gambler’s Anatomy successfully knits together the shaggy dog noir of Lebowski, the anti-hero narratives of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels (which, the novel reveals, were childhood favorites of Bruno’s) and — as vividly dramatized in a mid-novel surgery — the neurological and surgical case studies of Oliver Sacks and Atul Gawande. This strategy risks flattening his characters into stock genre tropes and to create a world that echoes Bruno’s quip as he flips through magazines in a hospital waiting room: “There were no people here, only People.” But A Gambler’s Anatomy works because Lethem’s characters play with genre just as he does—they see themselves in a variety of overlapping roles in a complex set of stories. The novel’s flourishes and idiosyncrasies, then, are much more than “meaning’s toys.” Instead, they reflect both the absurdism and the seriousness of Bruno’s game—a game in which the rules, the opponent, and stakes are always just beyond our field of vision.

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