If there’s something Jonathan Lethem can do, it’s come up with plots no one else has thought of. His plots are even wilder than stuff you’ve dreamed up and then forgot, but had that lingering notion of in the back of your mind when you wake up in the morning. Yeah, try and figure that one out.
Man, I bet he has the best elevator pitches, though.
So, my book is about a girl who leaves her boyfriend not for another guy, but for a black hole that she created in a lab.
Ok, this one is like 1984 meets Brave New World meets Animal Farm meets The Maltese Falcon, no? It’s a noir sci-fi thriller with talking animals, what’s not to like?
This new one is a doozy: an international backgammon hustler who may or may not be psychic starts going blind from a blot in the center of his vision.
Oh, yeah. He went there.
While backgammoning (is that a word? Aside: I only learned to play backgammon this past weekend, thanks to my lovely and talented mother, as research for this book. It is actually a pretty fun game, and any knowledge you have of it will definitely help you as you read certain sections!) abroad in Singapore, Alexander Bruno meets an old childhood friend, Stolarsky, who has mysteriously become a real estate mogul in their hometown of Berkeley.
After their encounter, things go awry for Alexander in Berlin, when he passes out during a game with a client. He wakes up in the hospital and his situation is serious. The “blot” that has been growing to occlude his vision is actually a tumor behind his nose and eyes and it is inoperable, at least for the German doctors.
Blot is used as an interesting double entendre, as this is also a backgammon term for a checker left alone on a point and therefore vulnerable to being hit.
But there is a guy, a crazy hippy doctor in California (of all places), who specializes in such tumor removal. Perhaps Alexander could return stateside? Penniless, he has no one to call except Stolarsky, who promptly books him a ticket home.
From the beginning, an anti-hero like Alexander is, of course, destined to return to his hometown to confront the reason why he left there, his old friend (however indirectly), his general issues with social life, himself, and of course, his tumor. He should probably get that looked at.
In true Lethem fashion, all that is not really what this book is about, though. Which is not to say that it isn’t important, or that it doesn’t play in metaphorically, thematically, or otherwise.
In backgammon, the board always starts out with the same placement, but the checkers can end up in wildly different positions all depending on the roll of the dice. It’s random chance, but it’s also how you decide to use your chance. What moves are available to you on the board and what strategy you are using. And one single roll can alter the luck of the entire board!
Really, it’s all a big metaphor for life and in this book, Alexander’s life has just turned into one losing game of backgammon after another.
The book also centers heavily around identity and what we consider identity. Our faces—now discoverable by technology like Facebook and potentially the Amazon bookstores—form such a large part of our identity that we can hardly ignore them.
But what happens when we take that away? When we become anonymous or our face no longer looks the same due to disfigurement, surgery, or injury?
In Alexander’s case, he takes on a new identity where the surgical mask he acquires later in the book not only becomes his new face (and his way to literally not face the world) but a viral sensation as a masked burger slinger and later as a political statement and symbol of anarchy. But who is Alexander, really?
When I think of influential masks, I think of Michael Myers, Jason, Guy Fawkes, Darth Vader, Ghost Face, Batman, and the Phantom of the Opera. (That last one might be left over from my musical theater training, but still, it’s pretty iconic.) Instantly recognizable, yet still we don’t know who is really behind the mask.
Masks confuse, intrigue, and repel us in equal measure. It is something that is of us but not enough like us to be one of us. They are really only acceptable on Halloween, otherwise we are a bit suspicious.
For the wearer, I see the appeal if you wish to hide your face, but it is a catch-22. No one can see your true identity, but you draw so much more attention to yourself by appearing too different from everyone else.
In a way, A Gambler’s Anatomy is like a post–coming-of-age novel, where the protagonist has not come-of-age but rather stayed in stasis and now a life-changing event is finally making him confront everything he tried to keep hidden away. Everything’s going to come out in the end.
There’s more to say, (you remember I said he thought he could read minds, right?) but there’s enough floating around here to get you started. Lethem understands what makes a story interesting and excels at the craft. You can’t go wrong picking this up or any of his earlier books for that matter.
Get your copy of A Gambler’s Anatomy (out 10/18)
Find out more about the author, Jonathan Lethem
Find out more about the publisher, Doubleday (Penguin Random House)
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.