The New York Times-bestselling author Professor Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, is the story of a James Bond-esque international backgammon hustler who believes he is psychic but is sideswiped by the discovery of a tumor in his face. He is then forced to grapple with existential questions, like: are gamblers being played by life? What if you’re telepathic but it doesn’t do you any good?
Which raises another question: why did Lethem, a critically acclaimed novelist and essayist, choose to write about backgammon and gambling?
“I always lean forward when someone in a story or a movie goes to the casino or steps up to the pool table or goes to the online poker game… So, I began by thinking in the simplest way, ‘I want to do that. I want to write a gambling story,” says Lethem.
Given the high stakes, gambling serves as a rich and emblematic metaphor for life, he says.
“The backgammon board or any kind of gambling arena is a kind of microcosmic world, it intensifies your relationship to life. But it's also an escape, it's a bubble you go into, it's outside of life. While you're there, everything else disappears,” says Lethem.
And ultimately, life — the house — always wins, he says.
Lethem, whose nine previous books include Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, is known for his genre mixing and experimentation. He says this book is a slightly more deliberate engagement with genre, classifying A Gambler’s Anatomy as a horror novel, even though it doesn’t have the traditional scares and shocks. Lethem says he wanted to write a book where the reader can’t take his or her eyes off of the character’s nightmarish descent, which is set in Berlin, Singapore and Berkeley.
Among its recent acclaim, A Gambler’s Anatomy was included on The Huffington Post’s “20 New Books You’ll Need For Your Shelf In Fall 2016” list and critic Kurt Andersen praised the book in the New York Times.
Lethem’s writing process starts with what he calls “blundering around” and moves to a steady coalescence with dogged intention. Once he finds a voice that he likes, he works every single day. But he says he is not concerned with hours or pages, so as much as with touching the project consistently. When Lethem gets stopped at a crossroads, he says he will just sit there “staring at the page and tolerating the anxiety.” While so many other writers toss out lots of material and create alternate scenes that don’t end up in their books, Lethem treads carefully.
“I try not to put a foot wrong… people sometimes ask you afterwards for the outtakes, asking, ‘Could we publish the deleted scenes?’ And I say, ‘I'm sorry, I don't really generate those.’ If I'm turning in the wrong direction and it doesn't please me to write in that mode, I'd rather sit and wait,” he says.
Born into a creative family, as a child Lethem thought about becoming a painter like his father, or a filmmaker or cartoonist. But his mother gave him a typewriter, “which was like ‘Go,’” he says. By the age of 14, the voracious reader announced he wanted to be a writer. His enjoyment of the craft hasn’t dimmed.
“When you begin to break down all the variations that are possible and all the implications of the decisions you're making at a preconscious level when you write sentences, even in that very basic mode, you can never stop being fascinated by it…I like trying to stay an apprentice to the task.”
Lethem, the College’s Roy E. Disney Professor of Creative Writing and professor of English, is teaching students at Pomona to be apprentices to that same task in an advanced creative writing workshop. He calls the relationship between his writing and teaching a dynamic relationship and says he finds the communal conversations in the classroom incredibly stimulating.
“Seeing people trying to enact what they're dreaming up, what they want to get on the page…trying to close that distance between what you visualize or what you hope your reader will experience and what actually lands on the page is a very rich and very mysterious area of instability,” Lethem says.