Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem

I really like Jonathan Lethem, and I’m interested in checking out whatever he does. This isn’t his best work, it doesn’t have that punch, but it is interesting, and I did enjoy it.

It’s about a professional backgammon player Bruno, who has a blot in his vision, and I don’t want to say any more than that in case you want to go read it yourself. I hate giving plot summaries, and I’m bad at it. He goes back to where he grew up, and there might be some magical realism, and it’s all very interesting.

There’s a whole part about a t-shirt with the Dude on it. Bruno doesn’t know anything about The Big Lebowski, but the picture of Jeff Bridges’s face with the word abide resonates with him on some level. Abide is such a great work, and playing with that was cool. Also the whole idea of a film creating a thing, the face and the word, which as been so thoroughly contextualized by consumer culture, stuck on things and sold. It’s such an odd specific movie, and obviously it struck a chord with a lot of people to be a cult classic, but nothing can exist only for it’s fans, not just for people who are in on the joke, it’s out there drifting. That’s so weird, and really in sync with the tone of the novel.

It sort of made me want to learn to play backgammon, kind of, and i’m not a board game person AT ALL. If I actually tried I’m sure I’d get bored soon enough, but this book did give the game a certain allure. It’s a pretty cool book, that knows it’s pretty cool.

I don’t love how he wrote the women, but hard to tell if that’s a writer concern or a character pov thing, but generally uncool. There are some weird invocations of anarchism that don’t really work. It gestures to politics, but never gets there in a meaningful/interesting way. (Or, possibly, I’ve been reading too much Mieville and it’s warped my perceptions?)

There’s a magical realism thing that I didn’t appreciate. Bruno might be able to read minds, but maybe he’s just crazy? The novel never makes this clear, which could be an interesting ambiguity if done right, but I just found it frustrating. I know Lethem is someone who likes to play around in genre fiction, which I usually love, but damn, I am not a fan of murky magical realism.

The surgical bits were so perfectly disgusting. Lethem thanks a bunch of doctors in the afterward, and he must have done some serious research to make this so intense and specific and gross.

I want to address the ending, so don’t read the rest of the paragraph if you don’t want spoilers: I think I love how the ending loops back, that things haven’t changed as much as it seemed like they might’ve. That there is something to return to. Alexander Bruno couldn’t return to his actual hometown of Berkley, but he could go back to his world of being a non-person in Singapore, maybe that’s who he actually is.

Overall, I liked it? I think? I didn’t love it, but it gave me plenty to think about, and I enjoy going along with authors I like do different things.

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