Usually when I read a book I have some idea what’s going on. I can see at least the outlines or a faint shadow of the author’s intent. With A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem, I cannot say that. Oh, I understood the words and the sentences, mostly. I can recite events that happened, in the order in which they occurred. Do I understand what the book’s about? Nope.
Lethem is, or has been, a brilliant writer. Motherless Brooklyn is probably his masterpiece, but his earlier works back when he was flirting with—or, more than flirting with, actually dating – speculative fiction still sparkle with inventiveness and eccentric genius. In individual lines and scenes, some observations by the main character and certain passages of dialogue, that brilliance and eccentricity still shows in A Gambler’s Anatomy, but after I read the last page I still wasn’t sure what the book was about. This is just not his best work.
Alexander Bruno is a professional gambler, a backgammon player traveling around the world relieving rich people (or let’s be blunt, rich men) of their money. He is described glancingly as handsome, looking like Roger Moore when he played James Bond. The book opens with a tense backgammon game in Berlin at the home of wealthy German. There is a sense that Bruno has had a losing streak recently and needs this game to stake him. That’s too bad, because the results are disastrous for him. After he has a seizure, he is taken off to a German hospital and given a fateful diagnosis.
That diagnosis sends him back to the one place he never wanted to go, the San Francisco Bay Area in northern California. Bruno’s childhood in San Rafael and later Berkeley was terrible, the terribleness heightened by Bruno’s occasional ability to read minds, a skill he has attempted to hide or ignore – or so he says. Back in Berkeley, Bruno is under the thumb of Keith, an unpleasant, wealthy man who is reviled by the protest-culture-mavens of Berkeley. Keith owns a tech-themed electronics store and a nasty burger place; he is filthy rich and he apparently resented Bruno when they were in school together, even though Bruno doesn’t remember him all that well. Keith offers to pay for the high-risk operation that will probably save Bruno’s life; he gives him an apartment and lets him have some clothes from his tech-themed store. He even doles out cash like a parent offering a kid an allowance.
The book leaps from its starting place as a caper book into a long section devoted to the strangeness of Bruno’s surgery and the daring of the brilliant, arrogant, exploitative surgeon who is willing to do it. Bruno has a non-malignant growth behind his face but it is impinging on his brain and it will ultimately be fatal unless the Jimi-Hendrix-playing-cowboy-neurosurgeon, who “blows off steam” at the end of a fourteen-hour procedure by demanding that his team share a humiliating sexual encounter with the group, can save him. Save him he does, but now, absent the growth, Bruno fears that his defense between himself and his telepathy is gone. Bruno wants it back.
Meanwhile, he has struck up a friendship with a socialist burger-flipper at a rival burger place, only it isn’t a rival place at all. He takes to wearing a medical mask, like the kind burn victims wear, and later, Keith demands he wear a mask that sounds like it’s the one Scarecrow, from Batman, would wear. There is Keith’s hot girlfriend and a German prostitute Bruno met twice, who, through a series of machinations, ends up flying over to Berkeley and getting stranded with Bruno under the control of the unpleasant Keith. When astute observations about the increasing commercialization of Berkeley, thoughts about Chez Panisse, thoughts about what a loser Bruno’s mother was, reminiscences about Bruno’s stay in the hospital when he was a kid and other items aren’t happening, there are ruminations on the nature of backgammon. It’s Berkeley, so eventually there is a riot. And there’s soup.
So, it is about masks? Trading one mask for another? Loser Bruno is no different, intrinsically, from tuxedoed James Bond Bruno? Is it about slowly erasing oneself? Who is really wearing the mask? Oh, wait! I know that one! It’s Bruno. Oh… but wait, maybe he’s not the only one because maybe Keith and the hot girlfriend are really just masks for someone else, someone Bruno knew in Singapore.
And then there are the women characters. Sigh. There is June, mentioned often, never seen, Bruno’s invisible mother who apparently wasn’t a good one. There is Keith’s hot girlfriend, Tira, who is playing a game of her own (or is she?) and Madchen, the German prostitute. Basically, the women in this book appear in pieces, in body parts. Tira says Keith likes her for her big breasts and she talks about them a lot. Bruno first sees Madchen on a ferry in Germany. Later he sees half of her; she is naked from the waist down, from the waist up everything but her eyes covered, serving sandwiches at the backgammon game. Bruno can’t figure out who she is but we readers certainly did from the second she stepped through the door. When she comes to Berkeley to care for Bruno, he mentally compares her to a St. Bernard. Does Madchen have a dream, a desire, a motivation? Who knows? Did someone pay her to drop everything (if she had anything to drop) and fly to Berkeley? Who knows? I certainly don’t.
Is it about telepathy? Is it that having telepathy means nothing? Other reviewers disagree about this one, but I read it that Bruno truly has, or had, some ability to read minds. Except for gambling, it just doesn’t do him any good. I am unclear whether removing the growth damaged his telepathic ability or enhanced it, and that he didn’t want enhancement.
At the beginning of the book we learn about Bruno’s handler, who, it develops, knows about the telepathy and may have it himself. At the very end of the book, after Keith has gotten tired of torturing Bruno, we suddenly see the hand of the handler (heh) again. And the book ends with Bruno in Singapore, playing poker and winning, and planning to choose a new name and erase himself further.
Ultimately, Bruno is not a character I could find myself caring much about. Keith is just unpleasant. I think this is an attempt to subvert the Evil-Rich-Man trope by making him the opposite of glamorous. Keith in school was a bully and now he’s a rich bully, maybe that’s it. If so, it’s not enough. Women who function solely as the puppets of men or of the plot, (or both) aren’t enough either.
Along the way the writing shows Lethem’s observational skills, and the long, detailed surgery scene is a tribute to both his prose skills and his research. Line by line, like anything by Lethem, it’s intriguing. At the end, I don’t know. I simply don’t know.