Lethem’s 10th novel is a romp in which history, both personal and collective, can't help but assert itself.
Lethem's new novel tells the story of a backgammon hustler named Alexander Bruno who suffers from a pair of physical (or metaphysical) disorders: first, telepathy, or second sight, and then a membranous tumor beneath the surface of his face that does have the happy side effect of keeping his psychic abilities at bay. But when the tumor needs to be removed, Bruno encounters the key conundrum of this free-wheeling novel: that sometimes survival requires more than a bit of despair. Bruno discovers this when he returns to Berkeley, where he was raised, to confront the ghosts of his history, embodied in the figure of Keith Stolarsky, a childhood friend who, for his own reasons, decides to bankroll Bruno’s surgery and recovery. “Why had Stolarsky wanted to save Bruno?” Lethem asks. “What was his life for?” The question cuts two ways. For Bruno, the issue is life or death but also more than that, because the life he has built—traveling alone and playing backgammon as a way of walling off not just his gift (such as it is), but indeed his very heritage—must be altered, drastically. “You asked me to save you,” his surgeon reflects, “but to save you I had to destroy you. That is what I do.” Stolarsky’s motives are more elusive; a reclusive entrepreneur and hippie capitalist, he is, at heart, about control. As such, the novel turns, as it must, conspiratorial, although, as in most conspiracies, it is not always clear who is manipulating whom. Think Thomas Pynchon (whose books this one superficially resembles), especially in the scenes set in Berkeley, a landscape of hipster burger shops and lost souls still longing for a revolution that washed out in an undertow of drugs and dissolution decades before. That makes the novel a fitting follow-up to Dissident Gardens (2013), which traced a different (and not unrelated) set of radical breakdowns, those of New York in the 1950s and the communist left. Lest this sound weighty, it’s not, so much: Lethem takes real pleasure in the language and writes with a sense of the absurd that illuminates his situations and his characters. “Telegraph Avenue,” he writes, describing Berkeley’s famous open-air market of countercultural chaos, “the island of lost toys.” It’s a vivid metaphor.
In this tragicomic novel, nothing is ever exactly as it seems.