A high-stakes gamble that doesn’t pay off
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