Reading is by definition a referential act. Every book you pick up harkens to every one you’ve ever read before. Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, ups the ante in this regard. With Laurence A. Rickels, he’s written a companion volume titled The Blot. A Gambler’s Anatomy stands alone as another exciting entry in Lethem’s oeuvre, different from most of what he’s written before, and uniquely weird. But readers looking for the truly unique and inspiring reading experience can read both books. Between The Blot and A Gambler’s Anatomy, you’ll be able to re-frame not just the reality created by the writers, but your own as well.
In A Gambler’s Anatomy, a charming unsettling young man named Alexander Bruno is in Singapore, steeling himself for another victory in high-stakes baccarat. Bruno has lots on his mind; money problems, luck issues, a childhood marked by abandonment and abuse, but it’s still alarming to him when he passes out during a game. Worse still is the news; the cause of “the blot,” a sort of hole in his vision, will require brain surgery. Bruno, who has long suffered from telepathy, is worried the surgery might harm his gift, which rarely works, alas, when he needs it to. Still, he not so happy messing with his brain.
Lethem, on the other hand, is having an absolute hoot messing with the readers’ brains. A Gambler’s Anatomy is a tense, disturbing novel, a Kafkaesque plunge into nightmare and identity. Lethem’s mordant humor is present, of course, and it is darker than dark as he balances readers on the knife-edge of terror and laughter. Lethem, who has always written with an undercurrent of existential horror, takes the next logical step here into body horror, in a scene of mid-boggling bravura. A Gambler’s Anatomy will keep you in terrorized with wonder as tangled emotions and re-jiggered bodies are forcefully re-assembled by the cruel machineries we make so well for ourselves.
And A Gambler’s Anatomy would be enough by itself. That said, pick up The Blot by Lethem and Laurence A. Rickels to have your prose world upended again, as the crisp sentences of Lethem’s novel are annihilated in the onslaught of intense discussion between Rickels, a critic and Lethem. They met at a conference on the work of Philip K. Dick, which is an excellent clue as to the direction their conversation about the novel pursues. Suffice it to say that the discussion is fast, wild, and filled with the kind of prose fireworks you will want to read aloud but would be wise not to. Even if you haven’t read the novel, reading this exegesis will make you feel as if you have been cleaning your brain with a wire brush. And reading both, you’ll probably be able to feel that piece of the rock that Lethem is holding in the photo above – an inspiration for the work [From Berlin!] that he discusses in our interview.
The upshot is that either The Blot or A Gambler’s Anatomy is a wonderful, wild read on its own. But put together, they offer readers what was easily one of the most intriguing and unusual and powerful reading experiences of last year. Physically, they make a nice pair; The Blot certainly has an eye-catching cover. Imagine discussing neurosurgery and self-image with Jean-Paul Sartre and Franz Kakfa to a backdrop of special make-up effect shots from David Cronenburg movies. Don’t look away. Hang on every word. Your very life depends on it.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jonathan Lethem to discuss his latest book at length. Here’s a link to our long-form interview; or listen below.