...this one is middle-aged in the best sense: relaxed, happy to be its impeccable, focused, antic but Weltschmerz-y self, slightly old-fashioned but in no way 'postmodern' ... Describing a commemoration of 1960s People’s Park protests, Lethem gives a beautiful nutshell history of the last half-century ... This book shares some DNA with Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s detective novel set in the late 1960s, and with DeLillo’s novels published in the ’70s, when he still fully exercised his knack for humor ... [a] thoughtful, first-rate novel that also happen[s] to be page-turner.
At times when I put the novel down, it felt like the result of a bet — I could imagine Lethem in a glamorous locale like one of those mentioned here, maybe the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, a Scotch in hand, saying, I bet you I can make a novel about anything to a mysterious figure hidden in shadow ... In the end, it is a novel about the loneliness of life in a world made to serve only the richest, one that leaves the rest of us to make what deals we can to survive.
Lethem adopts just the right tone for this handsome rake, who can hear Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near ... Lethem’s reflections on faces and identities would enlist more interest if we could feel a stronger pulse in Bruno — or if the concept of a man without a self were developed to more harrowing existential effect ... Lethem’s wit germinates and blooms within single sentences, which makes him a pleasure to read. And he’s a master at letting the weirdness of situations slowly accrue. But too many of the strange elements in A Gambler’s Anatomy merely bleed away.
Mr. Lethem’s backgammon writing has a satisfying crunch. It’s witty and sexy, too. ... It’s when the novel returns to the Bay Area that it fully becomes a Jonathan Lethem production. That is, the author begins to pour many of his abiding concerns into it: radical politics, underground art, an interest in literary genre (here a loose-leaf tea blend of detective fiction and science fiction), misplaced memories, a missing mother ... A Gambler’s Anatomy is a fluky novel, not among Mr. Lethem’s very best. Its themes are underdeveloped, and it moves in zigs and zags, like a squirrel in headlights ... This novel is a tragicomedy; it plays at its best like a Twilight Zone episode filmed by the Coen brothers. At its worst, nothing is at stake — the characters are breezy ciphers.
Writer Jonathan Lethem takes his readers places that they wouldn’t have imagined. It is his gift and his challenge. He succeeds masterfully in his new novel ... Lethem, who lives part time in Maine, moves his men around the board of his story like a backgammon master. Things get curiouser and curiouser before Lethem’s unexpected end game. A Gambler’s Anatomy is a complex unfolding of character that revolves around games of all manner and dimensions.
...one senses that Lethem has nowhere near the affection for gambling stories that he has for other literary genres ... formal flashes make the book very entertaining to read. There are also surpassingly beautiful passages of prose, especially in the section about Bruno’s surgery ... After reading A Gambler’s Anatomy twice it’s hard to say what Lethem is hoping the reader will take away. There are no characters to love. There are no real philosophical questions posed. At the risk of using a cliché that Lethem himself is far above using, this book lacks any obvious heart.
...while Lethem’s first novel, for all the sci-fi playfulness, had its own logic and coherence, his new one is so badly lacking in either that it feels as if he’s unwisely decided to write it using two divergent eyes. The routine description of Lethem’s methods is that he blends genres—but here the genres, and much else besides, seem not so much blended as arbitrarily thrown together ... Not only is A Gambler’s Anatomy almost totally free of recognizable human motivation, but it also picks up and drops its various threads with remarkable carelessness—most strikingly, the telepathy.
If you love Pynchon, then you’ll find all of this amusing. If you don’t, you won’t. A Gambler’s Anatomy is at its best not when presenting us with a tiring and tiresome Pynchonesque performance but when thinking about the nature of performance itself — the points at which performance and container, mask and face, meet and merge.
Some critics call Lethem a genre-bending literary genius. Maybe he is. He loads his dice with enough social and literary references, enough metaphors and similes to keep lit students busy writing papers about A Gambler's Anatomy for years. But unless there's a blot blocking my mind's eye, I find mostly entertainment and some clever literary tickling.
...what are we to make of this novel, that can’t quite figure out what it wants to be? ... There’s a grisly fifteen-hour long operation (essentially the centerpiece of the book) that I absolutely loved reading, but if you’re made queasy by blood and gore, you might want to skim this bit ... Lethem’s book often seem to ask whether people have any bedrock of self at all, or whether we’re all just collections of masks, swapping faces and identities as necessary ... I think there is a fascinating book dancing on the edges of this one.
...one of Lethem’s (many) achievements here is to make readers wonder why cards, and not backgammon, have been literature’s favorite game for centuries ... A Gambler’s Anatomy is as wild a ride as any of his previous novels. Backgammon knowledge isn’t essential — just a deep curiosity to discover what happens when you peel back someone’s mask and find another one, even more mysterious, staring back.
...the zaniness in Lethem’s new novel is tangential rather than central, highlighting episodes, not imbuing the whole proceedings ... Such outlandishness can be extremely funny. Lethem’s main section in Berkeley, the most successful part of the novel, is an effortless blend of comic hijinks and madcap tragedy ... Lethem ensures that the biggest laughs come from Bruno’s brash benefactor Keith Stolarsky and dazzles with a number of set pieces ... a punchy, stylish, relentlessly entertaining novel which, during quieter moments, asks us to consider whether we make our own luck and how best to deal with what life throws at us.
In A Gambler’s Anatomy, things get pretty close to pitch black — but that doesn’t stop them from being a hell of a lot of fun ... The ensuing surgery is the novel’s most stunning and elaborate set piece ... What stays consistent across the novel’s three acts — the glamorous high-stakes gambling world, the harrowing surgery, the anarchic Berkeley section — is Lethem’s assured, unshowy prose. He’s working in a noir style here, smoky and disaffected, and while his language rarely calls attention to itself, his imagery is precise and vivid.
It could be argued at this point that Mr. Lethem is beginning to juggle too many balls in the air ... Bruno's life is a puzzle, and Mr. Lethem’s tale doesn't do much to clarify it. Longtime readers of this author might well find themselves wishing that Rose Zimmer or Lionel Essrog would make a cameo appearance, just to make the story a little more...well, heroic.
Lethem calls on his virtuosic versatility to stitch together an unpredictable and fascinating story, hopping continents, genre and subject matter with ease ... Bruno’s fall from tuxedoed gambler to sweats-clad grill cook might simply be a reversal of past fortunes, the payment come due for prior success, but in Lethem’s hands it’s the novel’s richest section ... Lethem handles this mish-mash of elements with remarkable clarity. Though A Gambler’s Anatomy may not rise to the level of the author’s best, it’s a daring and animated novel.
...humanely, Anatomy investigates our attempts to restore that sight, to escape from our solipsism, by trying to reach out and understand our fellow humans. These themes are vividly conveyed in the character of Alexander Bruno, one of the more distinctive protagonists in contemporary literature ... It sure sounds like an existential downer of a book, and for the first act, that seems like where Anatomy is headed. But Lethem is too masterful a craftsman to allow his novel to slide into any sort of monotonous despair ... in spite of its frequent trafficking in 'low' culture, Anatomy still packs in enough erudition and deep insight to put it in a league with the very best novels of the past few years.
...plays out at a heightened pitch and can be very funny; A Gambler’s Anatomy marks one of Lethem’s periodic returns to those lighter (and shorter) novels reminding us that this prodigiously talented writer isn’t always trying to write the great American novel ... loaded with piquant aphorisms and spot-on descriptions ... Lethem fares best when taking apart our current stories of self and world. This novel is less compelling when imagining Bruno’s efforts to construct something new.
The first hundred or so pages are among the most enjoyable I have read for a long time, and there are nuggets of brilliance buried throughout the rest of the novel. Much of the time you’re willing to go along with Lethem for the startling clarity of his sentences and the mischievous wit of his image-making. But after a while the novel begins to feel like a series of more or less brilliant riffs on its main theme. The second half is a meandering disappointment filled with cul-de-sacs of plot and symbolically freighted moments don’t earn their keep. Characters come and go for no apparent reason.