A gambler’s most important anatomical feature may be nerves, but a reader of Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, won’t need nerve; rather, the subtle humor may require a gag on the reader in public spaces. Yet Lethem’s latest novel also plays with serious themes, including identity, high stakes in a novel playing at its own high level.

The protagonist, Alexander Bruno, is a gambler with possible telepathic powers, yet his game of choice, backgammon, as Lethem acknowledges, keeps Bruno honest: “Bruno must earn his winnings.” The structure of the novel plays with backgammon’s structure—a series of doubles. As with the novel itself, Lethem explains, “There’s no hidden game to be discerned.” The choice of an omniscient narrator allows for all thoughts to be exposed—at least, Bruno’s.

Nonetheless, Bruno wrestles with his identity. He wears a uniform that casts himself in the style of a man of the world: a dapper tux whose style he borrows from pop culture icons—Bryan Ferry, Robert Palmer, David Bowie, and James Bond. Yet this projection only masks a shallowness in Bruno’s soul. He’s a character, Lethem suggests, “who exists as a passive receptor of others’ perceptions of him. He has no tastes of his own.”

Bruno, then, operates in a constricted world, gambling in high stakes venues, managed by a handler who seems vampiric, also allegedly telepathic: until, that is, Bruno faces a string of unanticipated gambling losses and suffers a blackout that leads to a hospitalization and the diagnosis of a meningioma, a tumor of the central nervous system. Bruno’s sits behind his eyes; to remove the tumor requires a flight to his childhood home in California, the literal opening of his face, an unmasking. This procedure and the recovery initiate a series of disruptions that devastate Bruno’s carefully cultivated persona and life.

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Lethem_Cover1 Lethem’s interest in this procedure goes back to his unsettled fascination with brain surgery as a kid. “My mother had two brain operations,” Lethem explains. “The first was successful, but the second was the end of her. The most treacherous surgical arena is probably the cranium. And Bruno’s tumor resides in the Bermuda Triangle between his face and his skull.” Having researched the surgical procedure employed in the novel, Lethem “wanted to invent a narrative container to house this narrative intensity.”

Indeed, the surgical cowboy of the novel, Dr. Behringer, is a stereotype of the surgeon (or of the scientist Frankenstein figure), unable to exist in the mundane day-to-day of human interaction.  As the operation comes to an end, Behringer thinks to himself that “to save [Bruno] I had to destroy you.” Lethem describes the surgical procedure with as much grueling intensity as a horror novel. Indeed, Lethem explains, he wanted to operate “in the Gothic mode.” For A Gambler’s Anatomy, Lethem was influenced by the films of Cronenberg and by the classic 1960 French horror classic Eyes Without a Face, as well as the earlier works of Ian McEwan (The Comfort of Strangers) and Shirley Jackson’s disturbing gothic tales.

Bruno’s character, as with so many of the films and books Lethem sourced for inspiration, is one of constant revision. And Bruno’s played  as a pawn, for their amusement and for their needs, by other characters in the novel—with its own hint of the Artist’s hand playing with fictional characters. “Character,” Lethem explains, “is subject to constant revision. The metafictional leakage in the novel supports how provisional character is: in life, in art.”

And meanings remain somewhat provisional as well. As Lethem says, “As a kid, I loved works like the Alice books and the works of Kafka, where events don’t resolve into bald meaning.”

Lethem reminds us, quoting Dylan, that “the purpose of art is to stop time.” The gambler’s art, while the game is in play, is to do the same. Lethem’s rolls in this novel play to a winner.

J. W. Bonner teaches writing and the Humanities at Asheville School in Asheville, N.C.