The Blot: a Novel

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Review by Russell Leadbetter

RARE is the novel in which we genuinely feel as if we get under the skin of the main character, but we do that, quite literally, in the case of Alexander Bruno, the enigmatic professional gambler at the centre of Jonathan Lethem’s latest work.

Bruno, who is nearing 50, and who has psychic gifts, is a “weird sad gorgeous man”, said to resemble Roger Moore, “or the bass player from Duran Duran”. He makes his living as a backgammon specialist, so lethally good at it that he travels the top casinos in Europe and Asia, taking on, and easily defeating, all-comers. As he says at one point, “I relieve wealthy men of the delusion that they’re any good at backgammon.”

But Bruno’s luck had turned in Singapore, and as the book opens we find him on his way to a high-stakes game, in Berlin. He has another, more pressing, problem: a blot that has swollen his vision, a vacancy that deforms his view of things.

In the course of the Berlin game, into which wanders an athletically slim German woman, clad only in a man’s black shirt, heels and a trim leather mask, Bruno collapses, is taken to hospital, and collapses again. Tests reveal that he has a seemingly inoperable tumour growing inside his skull, behind his eyes. Only one surgeon in the world can possibly save him: but he is based in northern California, which means that Bruno has return to Berkeley, the place where he grew up and the last place on earth he wants to see again.

The experimental surgery is carried out by the surgeon – a sandal-wearing, pony-tailed character named Noah Behringer. The operation, all 15 hours of it, is related in unsparing detail (Lethem acknowledges the help of several doctors in a note at the end of the book).

This is where we get under Bruno’s skin: his face is more or less taken off, and Behringer painstakingly scoops the tumour out with copper spoons.

The operation is financed by a boyhood acquaintance of Bruno’s: Keith Stolarsky, a slovenly type “with a posture like a question mark” and a tiresome, chivvying sense of humour. But Stolarsky is also extremely rich, thanks to his thrift stores and burger bars in Berkeley.

For reasons that we guess might be linked to his impulse to control others (he also seems to rediscover some of his boyhood fascination with, and envy of, Bruno), he puts him up in an apartment 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 gray-and-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.