by Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed by CBR Editor
Alexander Bruno is a backgammon savant, or was prior to this novel’s opening. Like any brilliant gambler he understands the game down to its meanest detail, but earns his living by playing his opponent, not the game. He also relies on a telepathic sense to ‘read’ his players’ minds, although we’re never certain if he can read minds or just thinks he can. When the book begins Bruno’s career is falling apart, or maybe it’s just a run of bad luck (even world-glass gamblers have them) but after two catastrophic losses Bruno winds up out of money and homeless. Worse, he’s vexed by a ‘blot’ in his eye that’s getting worse, half-obstructing his vision and reminding him of his own mortality. An x-ray at a clinic in Germany shows it’s a malignant growth in his sinus cavity. Broke, without his financial mentor (or, captor?) the mysterious Edgar Falk, or even a fully-charged phone battery, Bruno’s life falls into the hands of an old high school chum, Keith Stolarsky. Keith is rich and seems willing, without much explanation, to throw money at Bruno and get him to Berkeley where he can undergo delicate surgery on the meningioma that will otherwise kill him. Bruno lives in one of Stolarsky’s properties, gets his surgery (fee waived by the guru neurosurgeon) and is looked after by Keith’s girlfriend, the grouchy but devoted Tira Harpaz.
“Lethem never gives us much cause to care about Bruno, a man who doesn’t seem to care about himself or anyone else.”
Lethem offers up a rogue’s gallery of characters in his latest book, from Bruno himself to the feckless and scheming Stolarsky, and the self-absorbed neurosurgeon with his Jimi Hendrix blaring in the operating room. The story shifts from point to point around the world, from Germany to Singapore to Berkeley, and across time to reveal in more detail the connection between Bruno and Stolarsky. Lethem’s writing, at times, is fearless and profound. There are brilliant scenes such as the epic backgammon contests, or the endless hours of surgery; a scene that reads like a tragic rock opera in its sterile medical environment. Clearly, Mr. Lethem is a writer of talent, and his resume prior to this book is bedecked with awards and accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award, among others. All of this makes me wonder why Lethem couldn’t make A Gambler’s Anatomy work. The few excellent sequences I’ve mentioned are highlights of an otherwise disjointed and aimless narrative, a plot line that seems to go nowhere. While we do follow Bruno’s fall, his wallowing in the murk of Berkeley’s hot spots and his ultimate conflict with Stolarsky, I was trying to figure out why I should care. Lethem never gives us much cause to care about Bruno, a man who doesn’t seem to care about himself or anyone else. There is almost nothing likeable about the man. He makes no choices but careens along the rutted road of fortune engineered by Falk, Stolarsky and to a lesser extent Harpaz and the surgeon, Noah Beringer. It wouldn’t have taken much to make Bruno someone to cheer for. Even a villain can be likeable, or have a likeable side. Alexander Bruno, meanwhile, is our protagonist and he’s never more than defeated, selfish and surly, a state he stubbornly refuses to emerge from except for a short-lived stint of civil disobedience at the climax -which I won’t give away- and, in what was the biggest deal-breaker for this reader, he’s unchanged at the book’s end (except that his ‘blot’ has been excised) as are all the other major players. I’m left asking what was the purpose of almost three hundred pages, if not to tell a story? Stories follow the progress of change over time, if you’ll forgive such antiseptic terms, and the end of the book brought no significant change in any of the characters. To add to the ambient noise that this novel settles into, the motivations of every character with the arguable exception of Tira Harpaz are muddy and inconsistent. Harpaz may be trying to escape her own form of bondage with Stolarsky but the help she offers Bruno -often at a steep risk to herself- is never adequately justified in the story and so in her case too, we are never shown why the people in A Gambler’s Anatomy do what they do.
Between Lethem’s handful of brilliant scenes of tragedy and tension, the language is erratic and sometimes reliant on plugging in the names of bands, hip streets and venues as if the author wants to ensure that we are all made aware of his voluminous knowledge of these ‘cool’ things. This narrative tactic feels like name-dropping which reduces the otherwise excellent quality of his writing. It made me wonder where the editor was on this project.
If you’ve never read Lethem before, I would suggest on of his other titles; Motherless Brooklyn, or The Fortress of Solitude, for example. A Gambler’s Anatomy never grows into a compelling story and its central character Alexander Bruno remains two-dimensional in a misfiring, pasted-together plot line that leaves off almost exactly where it began.