“Backgammon on the Brain: Jonathan Lethem’s A Gambler’s Anatomy Review”

In a recent New Yorker interview discussing his story, “A Gentleman’s Game,” Jonathan Lethem discusses his fascination with one of the oldest board games around, backgammon:

“Backgammon came to seem miraculous to me in the proliferating ways it signified for the book. There’s something funny about backgammon, and embarrassing, in a seventies Hugh-Hefner-life-style sort of way. It reads as fake-luxurious, and most of us have or have seen a backgammon set rotting away in a suburban den or TV room somewhere.”

The story is an excerpt from his latest novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, largely set around the game that Lethem describes as “fake-luxurious.” Most books about gamblers revolve around poker, but Lethem saw that as too ubiquitous in culture, and perhaps too capable of being heavily scrutinized and dismissed as just another story about a down-on-his-luck man gambling his troubles away.

Thankfully, throughout his genre-defying career as a writer, Lethem has strode away from anything but ordinary. His books have been homages to the misfits and outliers, to the fringes of society that are too often untapped in modern fiction. He blends the surreal and real, and occasionally tosses in elements of science fiction, noir, and fantasy into the fold.

A Gambler’s Anatomy, for the most part, is no exception to the wonderful paradox that is Jonathan Lethem.

Discarded by his mother and brought up by a gay cafe operator, Alexander Bruno jets around the world to disrupt wealth distribution by swindling money from the elite and rich by way of high-stakes backgammon games. At the beginning of the novel, Bruno begins to worry about an ominous obstruction in his vision.

As it turns out, when he eventually seeks medical guidance, he discovers that a massive tumor has sprouted inside his brain. Rather impressively, and graphically, readers are taken on a step-by-step process of the operation to remove the mass from his decaying mind. Lethem’s prowess in these portions alone is admirable enough for readers to take the plunge.

Bruno is one of Lethem’s more intriguing creations, but there is much about him that is left unsaid. He believes that he has somehow acquired telepathy, but that it is of no use to him. While this may very well be a side effect of his medical ordeals, it’s never fully developed in a way that makes it feel as if it has substantial worth within the narrative. This, along with his fleeting love interests encountered during his travels, is the most disappointing aspect of an otherwise adventurous, engaging novel.

Perhaps these qualms are amplified due to the fact that, at this point in his career, readers expect so much from the author who penned The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn, and Chronic City. After all, this is his tenth novel since 1994. Add that to his five collections, a novella, a considerable body of phenomenal criticism—Lethem is no doubt one of the most consistently effective prolific writers of his generation.

At the heart of A Gambler’s Anatomy is a man becoming increasingly aware of his own mortality. Although it shouldn’t be classified as a mid-life crisis type of foray, the novel does hinge a bit on whether or not Bruno’s life has been lived with sincerity and to the best of his ability. Has he slid all of his chips to the center of the table without fully considering the grand scheme of things? Lethem leaves that up for the reader to decide.

It’s commendable that Lethem spun the “gambler’s vice” into a more novel idea with the inclusion of prestigious and serious backgammon players. And the depth in which Lethem digs into the human brain, quite literally, is enthralling—if you can stomach vivid descriptions (Lethem doesn’t hold back at all).

As always, on a sentence-by-sentence level, Lethem is a joy. He is a master at getting as much out of his language as possible without overindulging in fanciful flourishes and needless description. He knows when to hone in, and when to pan out, and he continues to demonstrate that here.

A Gambler’s Anatomy isn’t Lethem’s best novel when examined as a whole, but there are glittering moments that make up for it along the way, passages that represent Lethem at his very finest.

Steven Petite

About Steven Petite

Steven Petite received his Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from Cleveland State University and is currently pursuing a Masters in Publishing Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. His journalism has appeared in Playboy, Huffington Post, Crixeo, Ranker, New York Game Critics Circle, and others. His fiction has appeared in Cigale Literary Magazine. He can be reached at stevenpetite@gmail.com.