A high-stakes gam­ble that doesn’t pay off

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

block he owns, gives him money, and picks up his colos­sal surgery bills. Bruno emerges look­ing, as some­one de­scribes it, “like Franken­stein and his own mon­ster, all stitched to­gether”, and he takes to wear­ing masks to hide the re­sults.

Backgam­mon, of course, plays a key role in the book, which was pub­lished in the US as A Gam­bler’s Anatomy. A blot, it turns out, is not only Bruno’s way of re­fer­ring to his vis­ual im­pair­ment but is also a backgam­mon term.

Even if backgam­mon’s rules and ter­mi­nol­ogy mean ab­so­lutely noth­ing to you, it’s hard not to be gripped by Lethem’s de­tailed ac­counts of Bruno’s en­coun­ters with op­po­nents who fancy their chances.

As he has shown in pre­vi­ous nov­els, such as Dis­si­dent Gar­dens and Chronic City, Lethem can also turn an ar­rest­ing phrase. Ger­man med­i­cal stu­dents greeted by pre-op Bruno, “an­swered with their eye­brows, be­guiled from their Prus­sian re­serve”. The trans­paren­cies of his scans have “amor­phous ghostly grayand-black mud pud­dles, veins of white min­eral run­ning through a rock.” Min­utes “died se­ri­ally into hours”. Berke­ley “ap­peared flat­tened by sun­light, made of stacked con­crete slabs and re­ceived cul­tural no­tions, a font squeezed out of a com­puter printer five min­utes ear­lier”.

There are well-de­fined char­ac­ters, too: Bruno and Sto­larsky, no­tably, and his girl­friend Tira Harpaz, and Behringer, the sur­geon with a Jimi Hen­drix fix­a­tion (Hen­drix’s mu­sic ac­com­pa­nies his work on Bruno’s tu­mour).

Would that the clos­ing chap­ters were as grip­ping and per­sua­sive as the ones that pre­cede them. Bruno ceases his pro­fes­sional gam­bling, and he falls in with an anarchist, Gar­ris Ply­bon, who is given to stern, flinty po­lit­i­cal cliches, and he is drawn into po­lit­i­cal protests.

He meets up with a fe­male char­ac­ter he had fleet­ingly met at the start of the book, but it fiz­zles into noth­ing.

Bruno is rapidly stripped of his al­lur­ing mys­tique, the mys­tique that has been such a page-turner into now, but there’s not much in its place: there’s a vague sense of things flatlin­ing.

Maybe that’s the whole point. As the blurb on Lethem’s own web­site has it, Bruno-in-Berke­ley con­fronts “two ex­is­ten­tial ques­tions: Is the gam­bler be­ing played by life? And what if you’re tele­pathic but it doesn’t do you any good?” But you are left with a wist­ful feel­ing that such is­sues could have been ad­dressed in greater depth than is ac­tu­ally the case.

Alexander Bruno is an enig­matic pro­fes­sional gam­bler who trav­els the world’s top casi­nos tak­ing on all-com­ers

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