A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday. $27.95, 304pp.
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem. Vintage. $15.95, 384pp.
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem. Vintage. $27.95, 480pp.
With A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem has written yet another quite ambitious novel that challenges American fiction’s low tolerance for thinking-as-art. This now makes four in a row that have either risked sinking from bravura and scope or have appeared too light and clever on the surface to be matched seriously with earlier feats. For instance, rather than Chronic City being a kitschy map for traversing Web-dominant culture, it tries to salvage what’s left of the literary and humane while honoring skeptical avant-garde traditions that inherently distrust the novel form.
Up until The Fortress of Solitude, admirers could content themselves, to a degree, with parodied tributes and deconstructions of old styles without having to imagine the positive role Lethem charted for novels in the future. As described in his essay on White Elephant and Termite postures attempted as a novelist, his books in recent years puzzle through this dialectic of positive and deconstructive values, and A Gambler’s Anatomy continues the course.
Author interviews support a first impression that Gambler was quickly dashed off, except that at least two of its long scenes appear as carefully worked as any section of the previous “big books,” Dissident Gardens (2013) or Chronic City (2009). A better way of setting A Gambler’s Anatomy apart from the other two is by noting the more surfacy, cinematic strategy of the prose. A Gambler’s Anatomy, the tale of a bungling, globetrotting backgammon hustler with a nearly inoperable face tumor, fetishizes the equipment and procedure of the game in visually descriptive sequences, as it does the invasive operation that leaves its masked hero, Alexander Bruno, disfigured.
The novel opens like a Bond film, brimming with hammy seduction and intrigue. Bruno, in a Roger Moore tux, fumbles for a lost cufflink on a ferry from Berlin to a shore-side estate, in the process falling all over an attractive fellow passenger, Madchen. Bruno is picked up from the ferry and driven to a lush mansion, where he, the “shark,” attempts to relieve wealthy real estate speculator Wolf-Dirk Köhler, the “whale,” of his cash and expert pretense, sitting fireside in the tycoon’s study, sipping scotch and nibbling sandwiches served by a kinky leather-masked bare-bottomed servant girl. Bruno wins the early games and then his fortunes turn. Things begin to unravel when Bruno’s nose begins to bleed from some kind of seizure; he collapses, and Köhler sends him to the emergency-room, Bruno’s winnings eviscerated.
Every lurch of this sequence hinges on the specialized mechanics of the game, its pointed geometry and cross-currents, its irritating jargon that swaps in for Bruno’s illness. The “blot” in Bruno’s vision becomes a vulnerable checker ripe for pouncing by an aggressive opponent, and it represents to Bruno an obstruction in his vision that has persisted throughout his current unlucky streak, which began during a recent visit to Singapore.
This blot is as fateful as the “pips” shown on a pair of dice. Berlin doctors discover a tumor or “meningioma” set deep in his face, so he must fly to the California Bay Area of his vagrant childhood to meet one of the few specialists who can perform the radical surgery to remove it. Because Bruno’s condition is so rare, the brain surgeon he depends on is off the beaten path, a quirky UC San Francisco doctor with the relaxed bedside manner, long hair, and flip-flops of Jeff Bridges’s famed Coen Brothers creation, The Dude. By some malfunction of the hero’s spotty telepathic power, Bruno sees his entire 16-hour procedure through the surgeon’s eyes. This operation “comprise[s] a film reeling on a screen in the dark, glitchy with blood and feedback.” For the reader, it’s nothing short of IMAX. The facial “spelunking” and excavation is completed by Dr. Behringer, the hippie MD, to an iPod soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix cuts.
The immersive game play and medical pyrotechnics recall the music-making reverie of You Don’t Love Me Yet, including that book’s pivotal concert set piece. As with a sports film that passes the test of that particular sport’s fan base, these novels provide a similar dramatic commitment to an activity and its attempted mastery, to a craft. And this visual, descriptive, literal, often real-time-seeming mode of narration, so closely associated with the cinematic, can too easily be pegged as a departure from heavier literary fiction, be it modern psychological realism or the fabulist tweaking of such found in The Fortress of Solitude.
For example, You Don’t Love Me Yet, another supposed “light fare” interlude in the Lethem corpus, is really closely connected in spirit to its “big” follow-up, Chronic City, especially in the ongoing dialogue with gallery and street art. But it keeps this search at the surface, as the narrative passes through various conventions of the romantic comedy, through twentysomething yearning and grad school disillusionment.
As proven again in A Gambler’s Anatomy, a vacuous central character doesn’t sabotage a first-rate novel by exposing the farce implicit in big-book importance. Rather, empty cyphers like Bruno or the aptly named Chase Insteadman advance evolving notions of post-authorship, transferring attention from overbearing personalities and psychological insights onto worldly action and materiality. Yet this activity in the novels also should not be overly fetishized as a middlebrow realism, privileging an exterior world beyond authorial experimentation. The latter is always superimposed on the former in Lethem’s novels. Possibly the greatest case of the writer’s having his cake and eating it occurs in Motherless Brooklyn, where heavy Joycean wordplay, “a whole clown parade of associations,” is excused by the fictional narrator’s Tourette’s compulsion. What matters in the post-Fortress quartet is a refusal to get hung up on the alibi of false correspondence between fictional devices and real things, a mug’s game that abandons real thinking for a shoddy descriptive anticipation of a dominant, hence acceptable, perception of things.
Dissident Gardens and Chronic City are no less descriptive than A Gambler’s Anatomy, but they often flourish in less-visual ruminations. They read more literary, equal to their grand social-realist subjects—American Communism; Bloomberg’s Manhattan elite. But in the hands of such a self-aware stylist, these too become genre. Call it “generational fiction.” The grand prize in science fiction is the Nebula; high honors for generational literature means the Nobel. (I have to admit to sensing a Lethem vibe in Stockholm: a youngish, noirish French surrealist, then the inventor of a fictional character named Dylan.) After these two formidable doorstops, the figure of the anti-heroic gambler Alexander Bruno offers a respite, as if to ask if the proposition of a serious novel is anything but a game, a hustle. It is actually in the appearance and use of games in Lethem’s books where the author’s attempts to overcome the limits of a particular novel’s genre or mode are most evident.
Too often experimental is merely shorthand for flashy pretensions, which shouldn’t forgive the widespread American taboo against so-called difficulty, and the paralyzing anti-intellectualism lurking behind fashionable notions of realism today. What is always lost in such a debate is the true spirit of experimentalism promoted by Emile Zola in his largely unread or misread essay, which preferred the process of artistic experimentation in a scientific manner, and cared less about the objective verifiability of any one novel’s findings. This celebration of activity extends beyond Zola’s naturalism or Flaubert’s modern realism and always manifests around games in Lethem’s novels, regardless of genre. In fact, a steadily increasing involvement of games can be plotted in the novels from the presence of skully and other Brooklyn street games in The Fortress of Solitude on through the central concern of backgammon in A Gambler’s Anatomy. In Fortress, skully provides a baseline anchor to the use of a game as a social-realist extension of the novel’s milieu. It is essentially non-participatory, a geographic feature. Once the young Dylan Ebdus masters the elaborate rituals behind constructing the skully game piece and drawing up the field of play, the other exclusive kids on his block move onto another game.
In Chronic City, the card game cribbage is just one detail among many constituting a wired environment the author uses to mediate relations between characters, a low-stakes pastime that allows the hermetic rock critic Perkus Tooth an opportunity to grow comfortable with a secondary character over the course of a few pages. The nature of the game anticipates the progress of the characters’ acquaintance. Throughout the book, two moments repeat: a physical description followed by its psychological embellishment. The first without the second would qualify the prose as minimalist, while the second moment contrives a more florid affect by minimalist standards. However minor the presence of cribbage, it’s curious also that this psychological-realist alternating current in Chronic City is matched by the two-stage structure of the game, the “pegging” stage and the hand count. (Each stage accumulates points toward a high score, the higher the better, echoing a more prominent activity in the novel, the online auction for virtual “chaldrons.”)
In a single game of chess, on the other hand, score doesn’t matter. Instead, board positions are analyzed to inform the best moves. It’s no surprise that multiple characters in Dissident Gardens are consumed by chess. States of mind and historical developments, like the development of a chess game, take precedent over the instant at hand. The events of Chronic City, occurring mostly in fall and winter of one year, are registered in the voice of former child actor Chase Insteadman with little backstory. As a multi-generational family chronicle, Dissident Gardens swells with a historical dimension, pulling characters out of the moment and shading every mundane activity with metaphysics.
In point of fact, Cicero at thirteen was already a monster of skepticism.
Yet he believed in chess, a secret garden of absolutes. On the squares, things swooped or swerved according to their hard-and-fast scripts, bishops and rooks thus, pawns durable plodding, black and white unmistakable foes. Knights, like Cicero himself, had secrets. They played at brazen invisibility, at walking through walls. Apparently looking in one direction, knights killed you in a side glance from another. If you employed them just so, all other pieces seemed earth-mired, sluggish as pawns. To that day, Cicero had been tempted to believe that if you got good enough at a first thing you might never need a second.
This passage doesn’t merely represent precocious Cicero Lookins, future scholar and son of a black NYPD officer, coming to a better understanding of his queer identity in the 1970s in Greenwich Village through a game of chess. Instead, under the gaze of the all-seeing historical eye, we get simultaneous analyses of chess and selfhood, personal conflict and class turmoil. Chronic City is an updated novel of manners, driven by the circumstantial, shifting emotions and alliances within its coterie. Dissident Gardens, as an abbreviated family epic, assumes the critical distance of a psychoanalytical retelling of a Greek tragedy. Buried in these novels are contemporary jabs aimed at, say, the compromised authority of online information or the Occupy movement’s casual resistance to big finance. But searching for social convictions in the work of a stylist like Lethem is no more fruitful than expecting to find a chess grandmaster behind the mask of a screwy backgammon sharp.
From A Gambler’s Anatomy:
Backgammon’s beauty was its candidness. In contrast to poker, there were no hidden cards, no bluff. Yet because of the dice, it was also unlike chess: No genius could foresee twelve or thirty moves in advance. Each backgammon position was its own absolute and present circumstance, fated to be revised, impossible to falsify.
Because little is given upfront about Alexander Bruno’s background (no bluff), because so much of what passes as interiority is quoted in dialogue (candidness), because the book is divided into sections that mimic backgammon’s doubling stakes (one, two, four . . . gammon, etc.), Bruno’s measure of the game serves not only as a guide to the book, but as an aesthetics circumscribing the mid-career Lethem of at least the last decade. Even as the thematic ambitions of his novels grow more worldly and totalizing, Lethem never abandons his commitment to formal integrity, to an art “impossible to falsify.”
In two nonfiction collections (The Disappointment Artist, 2005; The Ecstasy of Influence, 2011), monographs on music and film, interviews, and arguably in his novels, Jonathan Lethem has been exceedingly candid about his positions toward his own work and those of others. In the year Quentin Tarantino exploded the art house/cineplex divide with Pulp Fiction, Lethem inaugurated a new kind of extreme aesthetic awareness of popular genre writing in the field of literary fiction. I’m not sure exactly when Gun, With Occasional Music seeped into the mainstream literary water source, but by his sixth novel, The Fortress of Solitude, just nine years later, genre and comic books had become completely gentrified in the literary space. Lethem’s standpoint, however, always remained literary, adopting a Modernist pluralism and tolerance of mass culture, elevating, for instance, the paperback writer Philip K. Dick to his proper place in the Library of America cannon, editions he edited. Another requirement of the first-rate mentality is an avant-garde impulse Lethem pressed in short fiction (“The King of Sentences”) and in the essay, notably in the 2007 Harper’s piece “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which further enflamed a debate on Internet piracy by drawing on literature’s dusty antecedents in borrowing. The matter, as with other meaningful influences, was “old as the hills.” Lethem’s refined navigation of popular culture preferred obscure, discontinued cul-de-sacs, while reserving the right to pull from better-selling commodities when he came upon them at a meaningful crossroads in his personal history (i.e., Star Wars) or they otherwise fit in with his self-cultivated “fantasia of . . . curiosity.”
The novel, in its industrial origins, claims a place within the same “pop” or “vernacular” tradition, and this admission sets the table, post-Fortress, for Lethem’s two “big novels” and their shorter, explicatory bookends, a quartet that threatens to disappoint readers who thought they knew the old Lethem. This matter is best explained by the author himself, using critic Manny Farber’s dialectic between macho “White Elephant Art” and subversive “Termite Art.” The distinction between very public, often reviled authors and their underrated betters is obvious enough. But in American letters, the elephant is all but extinct. The notion of an elephant writer becomes very much a new speculative sub-genre, which at the same time bares a trace of a lost culture in which the elephant subsisted. Zipped up in his elephant suit, Lethem entertains cultural escapism, time-travel, scholarship, kitsch, and not a little ecological panic.
The hero of this literary Atlantis, Lethem candidly reveals, is American postwar lion Norman Mailer. Like Don Quixote in the second volume of Cervantes’s work, set in a world in which the first volume is published and circulating, Norman Mailer similarly works as a satirized fiction, helped along by the autobiographical third-person he uses in some of his best journalism. Advertisements for Norman Mailer was the rejected title for Lethem’s second nonfiction collection, and in it he expounds on his secret “Mailer-thing” while lamenting a lost culture robust enough to support both sides of the Mailer conundrum, for and against. In Dissident Gardens, young Miriam Zimmer and a paramour wander Brooklyn looking for a Mailer party, and an ongoing gag in Chronic City revolves around Perkus Tooth and his circle debating whether Marlon Brando and Norman Mailer are dead or alive. Iconic like Marilyn Monroe, a subject of Mailer’s, Brando and Mailer witnessed the cultural deforestation that could no longer sustain their ambitions. Unlike Monroe, they lived long enough to see their personas float off into the sea like a polar bear atop a melting iceberg, to cite another of Perkus Tooth’s obsessed-over images.
Though it might seem like an indulgence in Mailerish narcissism, Lethem’s measurement of Mailer’s elephant status, and of his own move from termite to potential elephant—an untouchable caste today sentenced to reenact the “Agonies of Franzen”—is in fact a sociological Lit Crit account on external factors that influence art production through its reception. Positive assertions about a work must take into account its critical environment, and the findings by theorists like Stanley Fish lend gravity to cultural temperature readings that previously could only be interpreted as informal grievances. (In Fear of Music, Lethem winks at Fish’s seminal study, Is There a Text in this Class?) An infinity of virtual interpretations is whittled down by social norms to a limited set of viable possibilities. This limited menu is further curtailed today by an overall leveling of the accepted field by merely relative values, part of the “open” culture that so relished Lethem’s genre promiscuity. Zombies are permitted, but metafictional gadgets from the High Seventies toolkit less so. What Lethem challenges in his own career is what a more bookish contemporary of Farber’s, Wylie Sypher, identified as a miserly “thrift” imposed by an immoderate dependence on method or techne. Today, the last half-century of American fiction can be understood within (and against) the rise of institutional normalization, a la Mark McGurl’s much noted periodization of The Program Era. Regarding the novel specifically, and an elephant’s limited maneuverability policed by “elephant cops,” Lethem estimates:
Any caprice is taken as a dereliction of the novelist’s mission of grinding downfield with the stolid, earnest, edifying-redemptive football of ‘the novel,’ a mission deemed crucial in a values-flattened, superficial, ironized culture. Of course, this takes for granted that we’re a values-flattened, superficial, ironized culture, starved for stolid, earnest, edifying stuff. I don’t.
The tendency in our culture to cage the elephant comes from just that same element that seeks earnestness to a fault.
My guess is that the not-too-secret secret of our times is that, behind a few self-congratulatory tokens of decadence and irony, an elephantine utilitarianism and conformism grinds at the center of our culture and its response to art and artists.
What is necessary is for the “we” of dedicated artists to stretch beyond the limiting mainstream distinction between earnestness and cheap irony. One possible landing point, evident in the recent quartet of novels and arguably a natural register programmed into the novel’s genome, is the utterly comic—every sentence a perceptive giggle and snort, with occasional gunfire. Another antidote to ward off epiphany is an unflinching formal awareness from the sentence level up through genre. Dissident Gardens might especially seem disappointing in its traditionally literary, socio-political aspirations. But in its existential self-awareness as just such a work, it transmutes into something more that isn’t quite edifying, although no doubt curious to its intended audience.
The early story “Vanilla Dunk” tells of a future professional basketball league in which a team’s fate doesn’t so much depend on the rookie it drafts as the skillset of a retired NBA star—Michael Jordan, Karl Malone—that the team is awarded by lottery, which is plugged into the rookie’s “exosuit.” From then on, the player’s career is bound by the talents and achievements of the retired great.
When Jonathan Lethem says he’s zipping up the white elephant suit, is he not also confessing to uploading a Mailer skillset to his “exosuit” laptop?
The degree to which Lethem conspires with Norman Mailer’s self-fictionalization—a reverie of craft in the spirit already established in A Gambler’s Anatomy and You Don’t Love Me Yet, in dice rolls, drum thumps and scalpel swipes—rests on a few solid facts in Mailer’s career. First, with the instant success brought about by Mailer’s war novel debut, The Naked and the Dead, the writer constantly worked under elephant-sized public scrutiny. Public stunts (running for mayor) and inexcusable violence (wife-stabbing) stoked the attention. Mailer cracked up, yet he also couldn’t quite deliver on the kind of philosophical novel he associated with engaged greatness. In a move that draws a direct line to today’s celebrated auto-fictions (but could be reconciled just as easily with DeQuincy’s Confessions or Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus), Mailer threw his hands up and told the story of his own failings and frustrations. Importantly as an artist, Mailer identified this move, right out of the gate, as the discovery of his supreme voice.
And yet the meaningful quarry that propelled this loveable, compromised Napoleon forward was always the magnum opus that got away. Not the massive novels that consumed so many of the writer’s later years, nor the journalistic dramatizations that won Mailer his highest praise. Mailer posted his unsuccessful bid for the Pantheon in the 1950s, a campaign he quasi-relinquished with Advertisements for Myself. Coached by French philosopher Jean Malaquais, pushing Marx’s Capital on friends, dissertating on political economy at Socialist conventions, penning philosophical meditations in his cofounder’s Village Voice column, Mailer had every aspiration to what Pierre Bourdieu terms in hindsight the Total Intellectual, a template largely invented and executed, successfully, by Jean-Paul Sartre a decade or more ahead of Mailer’s charge. Mailer’s own personal reference point was the engaged novelist and critic André Malraux, but Sartre’s La Nauseé could not have been far from mind when, in retrospect, Mailer declared his second novel, Barbary Shore, America’s first existential novel.
Barbary Shore, savaged by critics in 1951 and thereafter, features an urban troupe of chatty amateur theorists in pursuit of a reified McGuffin, not unlike Lethem’s dopeheads in Chronic City. But if Lethem borrowed Mailer’s elevator pitch for that novel, he had to build the rest of his sprawling metropolis from the tiger-eaten pavement on up. Instead, Lethem pitched his tent in Mailer-land with Dissident Gardens, baking the previous elephant’s ambitions into the full program of the latter novel. It begins with a name, and takes off from there through the ruins of Norman Mailer’s Advertisements. Lethem’s Miriam, never infiltrating a Mailer party, later names her son “Sergius,” which Cicero Lookins understands to be a character in Mailer’s “The Time of Her Time.” What is “The Time of Her Time?” In Advertisements, it’s an excerpt of an eight-novel mega work Mailer claims he’s abandoned. Advertisements ends with another section, the prologue. However, another longer piece of fiction in the collection, “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” is introduced as a prologue to an earlier scheme, at a time when Mailer began his third novel, The Deer Park, envisioning that as the first of the eight novels. In addition to appearing in “The Time of Her Time,” Sergius O’Shaugnessy narrates The Deer Park, and multiple O’Shaugnessys are mentioned in “Yoga.” Clearly, Sergius is central to this eight-novel project.
In Mailer’s “advertisement” for “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” he announces, “the eight novels were to be eight . . . adventures of a mythical hero, Sergius O’Shaugnessy, who would travel through many worlds, through pleasure, business, communism, church, working class, crime, homosexuality and mysticism.”
Lethem’s own Sergius novel is nimble enough to incorporate several of these themes at once, but its 16 chapters appear to draft each one of the topics as a dominant theme in consecutive-chapter pairs, without repeating any of them as a dominant. Therefore, the first two chapters choose pleasure, the second two mysticism, and so on (business, communism, crime, working class, church and homosexuality). The final chapter’s love affair between Sergius and Lydia, though not same-sex, is the sexual joining of fellow travelers, more literally a sexual encounter with the “same.” The other chapters conform more directly with their theme.
In the four novels of the last decade, Lethem never abandons his sixth sense as a vanguard artist. Instead, he challenges the bourgeois assumption of original genius and anoints a new stylish decadence that prefers a truthful, candid process over brainwashed claims to capricious authenticity.
Christopher Wood is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, who now lives on Long Island. His essays have also appeared in The Millions and Full Stop.
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