Trying to make sense of Jonathan Lethem’s fiction as a whole is something of a fool’s errand: there is no easily discernible line from the early hipster science fiction to his big-selling detective story Motherless Brooklyn (1999), to his Cobble Hill coming-of-age novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003) to his intricate, ironic New York Buddenbrooks, Dissident Gardens (2013). Even his prose often seems like the work of a series of distinct writers: from the Philip K. Dick/Raymond Chandler pastiche of Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) to the loose, freewheeling style of The Fortress of Solitude to the clotted, effortful virtuosity of Dissident Gardens.
His initial plan, he told the Paris Review, was to become ‘the American Calvino, but nourished by scruffy genre roots’ – in particular, by his long-held obsession with Dick’s work. Nowadays, Lethem tends to alternate between what he calls ‘big ones’, and less ambitious works, like his tenth novel, The Blot, which was published in the US as A Gambler’s Anatomy. The big ones tend to be broadly realist, rooted in his own radical, bohemian New York background, but with ritual nods to those genre roots. The Fortress of Solitude features both a fine-grained depiction of a bookish Jewish boy’s childhood in rough, mostly black, pre-gentrification Brooklyn, as well as explicitly comic-book elements: the boy and his black best friend find a ring that confers on them the powers of flight and invisibility. Conversely, the smaller books tend to start in a generic mode, but grow in ambition as they proceed: it is an article of faith with Lethem that pulpy means and grand ends should not be incompatible. So The Blot kicks off as an entertaining gambling caper, morphs into what he has called his ‘first horror novel’, and ends up as something much harder to describe.
The new book takes the reader into the faintly absurd world of the backgammon hustler. In the argot of the game, double sixes are apparently known as ‘the boys’, and double fives as ‘the girls’. Checkers trapped on the bar and unable to re-enter the board are said to be ‘dancing’, and an unprotected piece, sitting singly on a point, is a ‘blot’. The book’s protagonist, Alexander Bruno, an American nearing fifty, travels the world – Singapore, Dubai, London, Panama – with his tuxedo and his backgammon case, exuding an air of ‘ruined glamour’, and relieving rich men of the delusion that they are any good at the game. We first encounter him on a ferry crossing the Wannsee to play a private, big-stakes game with a high-rolling Berlin property developer; Bruno is hoping to end a bad losing streak, while suffering from recurring headaches and trying to ignore another blot, one constantly in front of his eyes: a ‘void at the centre of his sight’, a ‘vacancy now deforming his view of the receding shore’.
The Blot begins with a sleazily alluring noirish set-piece. Bruno is welcomed into the wood-panelled, book-lined study of the property developer, Köhler, ‘a balding sprite in a blue velvet dinner jacket’. He is served fine Scotch, and is soon winning tens of thousands of euros. Lethem deftly sketches the movements of the game, slowly cranking up the tension while musing on the hustler’s trade: ‘At such times [Bruno] became a courtesan of sorts. A geisha boy massaging the customer’s vanity until he could make off with the loot.’ He also works hard to give backgammon some depth and symbolic heft: ‘The clacking of the checkers on the hardwood points was the music of honest thought, resounding in silence as it navigated the fortunes told by the pips on the dice. Bruno had for his entire life associated backgammon with candour, the dice not so much determining fate as revealing character.’
But when Köhler plays his collection of crackling, shrieking jazz 78s, the atmosphere in the room becomes nightmarish, and Bruno’s luck turns. Köhler has arranged a ‘delightful surprise’: tiny, delicious ‘dinner sandwiches’ are served by a woman who is naked except for a black shirt, high heels and a leather mask zipped at the mouth. As Köhler smashes at his pieces with a newly effective ‘anarchic blitzing game’, a disconcerted Bruno finds himself wondering: who is the shark here, and who is the fish? Several thousand euros in the hole, he sees the woman rubbing a finger beneath her masked nostril: she is telling him that blood is running out of his nose. He collapses and suffers some sort of seizure.
Later, at a Berlin hospital, the cause of the blot is diagnosed: he has a meningioma – a large crab-shaped tumour between the casing of his brain and his face. Its size and position, directly behind his eyes and nose, make it nearly inoperable. There is only one neurosurgeon in the world who will tackle it, in California. ‘Have you friends in the San Francisco area?’ a helpful doctor in the hospital asks. As luck would have it, he does. A flashback to his previous port of call, Singapore, reveals an encounter with an old acquaintance from his high-school days in Berkeley. Despite looking like ‘a street person’, with a ‘warped grin and pigeon walk’ and ‘a posture like a question mark … dressed in layers of baggy, unwashed black polyester’, Keith Stolarsky is in fact extremely rich, as his very attractive ‘companion’, Tira, explains: he now owns a prime block on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and is ‘viewed as kind of like Darth Vader in your hometown’.
Stolarsky had idolised Bruno at school – he still calls him Flashman, after George MacDonald Fraser’s dashing anti-hero – and he and Tira seem immensely tickled to have run into him. Bruno suspects that they are swingers, and both hint repeatedly that there might be room in their open relationship for him. In his hour of need, they become his benefactors: Stolarsky buys him a plane ticket from Berlin, finds him an empty flat, and agrees to pay his hospital fees. Bruno, meanwhile, is kitted out with a Lethemesque background which explains his reluctance to return to Berkeley and America in general, land of ‘bullying, psychosis and bad taste’: his mother was a chaotic hippie who gradually became a street person herself. He raised himself, with help from the waiters and waitresses in the restaurants where he worked as a teenager.
At this point, The Blot enters its second terrific set-piece, very different from the first. Bruno is conveyed into the hands of Noah Behringer, a maverick neurosurgeon, sandalled and ponytailed, who is openly messianic about the coming operation: ‘Think of it like this. What’s inside you, behind your face, it’s been travelling for many years to this rendezvous with me. And all this time I was getting ready to meet it, inventing and perfecting my technique. I don’t mean to sound like Dr Frankenstein or something. But this is fateful!’ The procedure, he explains, means ‘more or less taking your face off’, and it is described in precise and horrifying detail. To the strains of Behringer’s carefully curated Jimi Hendrix soundtrack, Bruno’s nose is unlocked from the orbital bones; the upper eye sockets and lower brows are detached. The eyes are themselves retracted and pushed aside. The exposed flesh is teased free, and his face is ‘flapped downwards, to lay on the tray mounted across his throat and chest. Like a baby’s bib! it appeared suddenly to Behringer.’
Lethem handles this section exceptionally well, combining deeply researched detail with spooky dread. Other brain surgeons, we learn, are horrified by Behringer’s ‘reckless path through the face’. This primes the reader for Bruno’s own sense, during his painful convalescence, that something terrible has been done to him. His once handsome face has become ‘a fascinating amalgam, flesh turned dough, swollen and mottled, here and there puffy or sagging, in other cases lightly flaking’; he has to cover it with a surgical mask. And though the blot is gone, he has been left with a terrible sense of loss. He suffers what Behringer calls a ‘delusional episode’: he believes that, as a child, he could read minds, and that he had developed the tumour as a defence to protect him from the hell of other people. Now, he tells the surgeon, ‘I need it back.’ The reader is left with a whole series of questions, such as why Stolarsky wanted to save Bruno, but the book’s final third doesn’t come close to providing satisfactory answers.
Lethem is a great explainer of his own work and particularly of his borrowings – which, he wrote in his essay ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’, should be a matter of celebration rather than shame. He has enumerated his models for The Blot extensively in interviews; you can even buy an 80-page ‘supplement’ in which he discusses it with the cultural critic Laurence Rickels (though I really wouldn’t recommend it). The initial idea came out of his love for stories about gamblers, such as Walter Tevis’s The Hustler and Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance. For the Singapore sections, he reread a fair amount of Graham Greene. The idea of a man whose life is changed by an operation on his face was inspired by the John Frankenheimer thriller Seconds, in which John Randolph is given a new identity – turned into Rock Hudson – by a shadowy organisation. The gory detail of the procedure was influenced by the body disposal scene in Ian McEwan’s The Innocent (and, I would have thought, by the brain surgery in Saturday). The structure was apparently suggested by Psycho and A Passage to India.
The sheer range of modes covered suggests the problem: The Blot is a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together out of mismatched body parts. But the shifts in tone are mostly well managed until the final act, where Bruno falls in with a bunch of anarchist shop workers and Lethem cedes to another, very powerful influence. With its goofy radical politics, silly names (Garris Plybon, Madchen Abplanalp), cartoon-villainous capitalists and ‘absurdly demanding speech routines’, the action is clearly set in Pynchonland – specifically, the late, post-genius territory of Vineland and after. What was taut and fast-moving becomes slack and meandering; where before Lethem was content to have his characters sharply drawn and briefly glimpsed – such as Bruno’s sinister stakehorse, Edgar Falk – here he makes unsuccessful forays into taking his cast seriously as people. In what looks like a last-ditch effort to tie the unravelling threads together, the telepathy theme – mostly ignored after Bruno’s discharge – is reanimated in the final pages to provide a very silly coda.
In most cases, this would be evidence of desperation, but here it is probably a manifestation of Lethem’s aesthetic programme. He has justified the often criticised superheroic subplot in The Fortress of Solitude by explaining that he likes to introduce elements of ‘formal discontinuity’, which wrench the novel’s realism – ‘mimeticism is the word I prefer’ – into ‘crisis’ by ‘insisting on uncanny events’. Why he should want to wrench things around like this is a long story, but it originates in the belief, common among male American writers of his age and inclinations, that, if you don’t restlessly innovate – make use of the full armoury of postmodernism – you’re not really doing justice to ‘contemporary reality’. By postmodernism, Lethem means using ‘what aesthetic means and opportunities modernism and an ascendant popular culture left in their wake … the vastly expanded and recombinant toolbox of strategies, tones, traditions, genres and forms a legacy of modernist-style experimentation, as well as a general disintegration of boundaries (between traditions, tones etc) has made available to a writer.’
If that sentence seems prohibitively hard to absorb, he makes the argument against realism more simply elsewhere: ‘I’ve bet my life’s work on a suspicion that we live at least as much in our wishes and dreams, our constructions and projections, as we do in any real waking life the existence of which we can demonstrate by rapping it with our knuckles.’ The first argument seems not even wrong, the second one much more persuasive, but either way the nub of the matter is surely this: such formal experiments, disintegration of boundaries, and so on, are very hard to do well. Many talented artists have left only one successful set of innovations throughout their entire careers: take Rushdie, or Auster. Lethem too is talented, intelligent, funny, good at dialogue and a gifted stylist – but the command to innovate endlessly often represents, for him, an intolerable strain. That’s why his work is so frequently two-thirds great and one-third flawed.
Fiction is, by and large, both simpler and more delicate than Lethem would have it. At any rate, the fabric of The Blot doesn’t survive the delirious developments of the final hundred pages, which include a sexless love affair with the dominatrix first seen in Köhler’s study, a civil insurrection, and a climactic game of backgammon played on a grill using hamburgers as checkers, all mediated with helpfully generalised metaphors: masks, vision, meat, money, chance. Those who are curious as to what on earth is going on here can read Lethem’s gloss in his exchange with Professor Rickels:
In other words, his ‘men’, formerly cool smooth ivory and ebony markers, have been turned into meat. This is a horror story, after all, and a medical one. The paradox of his surgeon’s bold approach to the blot is to remove the face to find what lies behind it, but the success of the procedure will be measured not only by how completely the face is restored to its earlier appearance, but whether its possessor can ‘re-invest’. Is what I see in the mirror still me, or do I see the meat instead? So, the surgery is deep, but also shallow. It is a Nazi experiment in body-rupture, but a Californian plastic surgery, both at once.
Deep, but also shallow, both at once.