Saturday, February 11, 2017
A Gambler's Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: A review
This book has been published in the U.K. with the title The Blot, which actually seems a much better title than A Gambler's Anatomy. In backgammon, which is the preferred game of the main character in the book, a "blot" is a piece that stands alone, vulnerable to attack. Alexander Bruno, the main character, adopts that term to refer to something that has gone horribly awry with his anatomy. There is something growing in his head, between his eye and his brain. Something that shouldn't be there.
It is a tumor, and when we meet Bruno for the first time, in Berlin, that unnatural growth is just about to land him in the hospital after he suffers a kind of seizure while he is playing a high stakes game of backgammon.
Bruno is a professional gambler. He travels the world, winning large sums of money from rich amateurs who are sure that they have what it takes to beat this professional. He has been inordinately successful for a long time, but then, in Singapore, his luck turns. Suddenly, he is losing more than he is winning.
He moves on to Berlin where he hopes for a turnaround in his run of luck, but, instead, the losing continues. And then his health fails.
The doctors at the hospital in Berlin diagnose his problem, but are not equipped to treat it. He learns that perhaps the only neurosurgeon in the world who may be willing to try to rid him of his unwanted "blot" is in Berkeley, California, where he grew up. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the money to get to Berkeley.
But, luckily, Bruno has an acquaintance from high school days, who now just happens to be in Berlin, and who is filthy rich. He offers to pay Bruno's way and to pay for the medical care he needs once he gets to Berkeley. Soon enough, he is back in California, undergoing major surgery that involves rebuilding his face after removing the tumor.
He emerges with a face that he cannot recognize and he takes to wearing a surgical mask after his bandages come off. No one on Telegraph Avenue where he lives seems very surprised or put off by the man wearing the mask. In fact, he fits right in there.
Jonathan Lethem is an extraordinarily inventive writer who turns out exuberant prose that is steeped in a sardonic wit. In Alexander Bruno, he has created what should be a riveting character and yet he just seemed flat to me. I couldn't really care that much about him. He gives the impression of floating through life, on the kindness of strangers, without any real passion of his own. True, he is obsessive about backgammon and rather smug about his mastery of it, but he doesn't appear to see much beyond that. He didn't really engage my interest as a reader.
When I sat down to write this review, I had the oddest sensation. I realized that even though I had just finished the book the night before, I couldn't really remember how it ended. I reread the last chapter and, quite honestly, I still don't know how it ended. Perhaps that tells you everything you need to know about my reading experience with it.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars