Jonathan Lethem on Gambling, The American Left, and Formative Grief
"I’m forced to give you a glimpse of that deathly vacuum at the heart of my being"
Ever since his Nebula-nominated debut Gun, With Occasional Music—a magnificent hybrid of hardboiled noir and dystopian science fiction—launched his career over 20 years ago, Jonathan Lethem has been regularly referred to as one of the most original and imaginative writers of his generation. His “genre-bending” fictions—and their ability to blend sharp social and political commentary with both quiet heartbreak and scathing humor—have brought to life tourettic detectives, anarchist activists, faded child stars, and now an international backgammon hustler with (possible) psychic powers. A Gambler’s Anatomy (Doubleday) is the marvelously entertaining story of Bruno Alexander, a jaded, rakish middle-aged American in exile whose days are spent crisscrossing the world both in search of, and in flight from, gamblers with more money than sense. When a probably fatal tumor lands him back in his old stomping ground of Berkley, the now near-dystopian playground of a former classmate turned nefarious Bay Area property mogul, things begin to take a turn for the surreal.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to Lethem about, among other topics, unusual writerly obsessions, left-wing political upheaval, the wildness of 1960s and 70s New York City, and the “glimpse of the void” at the heart of his fiction.
Dan Sheehan: First question: why backgammon?
Jonathan Lethem: Well I’ve been semi-consciously collecting instances of gambling in fiction. I really like gambling stories—films and novels both. There was even a point, 15 years ago, where I had this fantasy of editing an anthology of gambling in fiction. But there had been one already that was pretty good, so I didn’t feel like it needed to happen. So, this idea had been with me, but it just sort of floated, I didn’t have anywhere to go with it. I play poker myself—low stakes, nickel-and-dime stuff—but poker seemed too saturated in the culture already. It lacked the personal or specific quality that would make it a subject I could claim as my own. And then I learned that someone I knew growing up had gone on to become, for a while, a backgammon hustler. I learned that this preposterous role was possible, that there were such things. I played backgammon as a kid, and a couple of times later in life, and it always struck me as something with a kind of holy quality. It’s taken for granted, it hides inside a chessboard, but it also has this mysterious depth to it. It’s very ancient, it’s one of the oldest games humans play. It goes all the way back to Mesopotamia.
I hadn’t ever seen any backgammon fiction—so I latched on to it. It was a lucky choice; I came to think backgammon was very distinctive. It’s like poker in that it combines skill and luck. As in poker, the skillful players will prevail over the long run, but because of the operation of chance a beginner can win against the very best player at a given moment. It’s only in the long run that skill prevails. It also has this weird nakedness to it: there are no hidden cards, and the dice determine so much that you have to actually roll with them, so to speak—you alter strategies according to what the dice have offered you. I like this fluid quality, the fact that it’s never the same twice. It’s a simple game, but it’s also very hard to make general principles out of it. You have to understand what the board and the dice are telling you. It has this candidness—anyone can glance at a backgammon board and see who’s winning and losing, it’s just a race. You could never claim to be secretly ahead when you’re not; as in life, the results are sitting there for everyone to stare at. So you have to be like Bruno, you have to be weirdly adaptive and compliant, because the dice are really telling you what to do.
DS: You’ve been called “a man of obscure obsessions and unabashed passions.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization of you as a writer?
JL: I don’t mind it. I don’t always think of them as obscure. I’m often surprised when people haven’t heard of the things I take for granted. I’m a solipsist like anyone else and I think, “Oh, of course The Go-Betweens are the greatest rock band of the 80s” and then I mention them and someone hasn’t heard of them and I’m confused again. My world seems native to me, it seems natural. But I like obsession when I meet it in other people, so why shouldn’t I be proud of it?
DS: Is your particular list of obsessions an ever-growing one, or do you find that you’re just endlessly fascinated by the things that have always claimed your interest?
JL: A bit of both I think. I do collect new fascinations and crawl through new wormholes. I spent a big part of the last couple of years reading and thinking about this one gigantic, problematic modernist novel, The Man Without Qualities. I ended up teaching it to a bunch of perplexed undergraduates, and writing an introduction to a new edition of it, and reading Robert Musil’s diaries and so forth. He’d never crossed my radar before, or if he had it was only when I was shelving copies of his book in a used bookstore and thinking “I bet I’ll never read that!” Then he became everything to me, for a little while. But then again, to the other part of your question, there are subjects that remain evergreen, in regards to which I remain perplexed, in a permanent state of fascination. Subjects like Bob Dylan or Alfred Hitchcock, say. Beginning in the prehistory of my own consciousness they characterize my sense of what culture was for, what it consists of—and of how I wanted to spend my time. I doubt I’ll ever shake certain defining obsessions, most of which I collected in a key period of openness, between the ages of say, 13 and 17. People always talk about this idea that there’s no music that ever means as much to you as the music you first heard when you were 13 or 14 or 15—coming of age sexually and in other ways—but I’d expand that beyond music. I think of the books that I read in that period—Patricia Highsmith, Philip K. Dick, Shirley Jackson, Graham Greene, Kafka—and I feel like my subsequent life has been a compulsive sequence of engagements with the fundamental premises that come out of that reading, and listening, and of the films and comic books that I encountered in that period.
DS: Does that sensibility extend to the political realm? I know that you grew up heavily steeped in politics from an early age and I’ve been wondering recently, how does a fiction writer engage with a grotesque like Trump. A character whose temperament and behavior would have seemed too outlandish, too heavy handed, if he had appeared in fiction just a few years ago. Do you feel that the political villains of your youth pale in comparison to what we’re dealing with now? Does he make Nixon seem like a calm and measured individual by comparison?
JL: I guess he does. But Nixon to me is still more vampire than man. Trump perhaps represents just the de-sublimation of what I always felt was going on already. I mean my belief is that so much of what passes for mainstream political discourse—this ostensibly rational auditioning of different personalities and rhetorical styles, that we’re calling an “election process”—is actually transacted at totally irrational levels, a realm of mythology and archetypes, of fear and desire. I wrote about this—just working off dead instinct, not because of any concerted political study—in my second book Amnesia Moon. There I described a world where television soap operas and politics have converged so that it’s the same thing to be a star in a daily soap opera as it is to be an elected political leader. This isn’t to claim some extraordinary prescience about Trump; it’s not so different from the kinds of satirical intuitions that you encounter in Philip K. Dick’s satirical fictions of the 1950s and 60s. So, Trump is just the most outward and undisguised symptom of this aspect of politics—of our collective social reality—that’s in the grip of a seasick procession of dreams. Nightmares being bodied forth, that sort of thing.
DS: Can you envisage a return to a more measured type of politics or when you look at the current climate do you see it moving further in the direction it’s currently headed?
JL: Hmmm. I suppose the answer is that I’m not, in the end, searching for a more measured politics. That suggests a stabilization of the status-quo, of a present I regard as unsustainable, and worse than unsustainable—wretched and wrong in many respects. My appetite would be for a different kind of political dreaming, one that dares to ask for quite a lot more, but obviously in a very different register from the nihilistic fantasies of Trump’s rhetoric. With our backs to the walls it happens, at the moment, to be desperately important to extend the current neo-liberal status quo, [laughs] at least for another four years. But in the loosest sense the appetite for transformation that Trump embodies reproduces an echo of my own desires, as the Tea Party echoed the Occupy movement. And it’s not to see a stabilizing of the present order, because the present order is pretty badly fucked. I just think that Trump is the supreme symptom of its fucked-ness rather than some sort of cure.
DS: My family has always been pretty left leaning and we were talking recently about how the slight de-stigmatizing of the word “socialist” in this election campaign, or at least in the democratic primaries, could be a wonderful thing, that it could be the beginning of a reevaluating of the kind of discourse you’re talking about.
JL: Yeah, it’s certainly not bad. I mean, with all the jumping up and down on the grave of the Occupy movement, I think you have to go and look at the way they re-naturalized the idea of capitalism as something distinct from simply “Democracy” or “Americanism” or “The Normal.” They gave it its name back, which in some ways re-introduces the possibility that you could have an anti-capitalist political perspective.
DS: With that in mind, in relation to A Gambler’s Anatomy, does Keith Stolarsky—the novel’s crass, uber-wealthy antagonist—serve, in a sense, as the embodiment of a great activist fear: a hippie capitalist whose control is so all pervasive that even insurgent movements appear and disintegrate according to his plans.
JL: Hah! I like that. Like a kind of evil Ben & Jerry’s.
JL: I guess I have a kind of hyper-vigilance to the corruptibility of counter-cultural things. I suppose this makes me seem quite hard, at times, on that with which I identify with very powerfully: American leftists, dissidents, hippies, outsiders. I’m always writing about things that I feel compulsively involved in, and complicit with, things that are of myself. Yet I do often tend to be patrolling them for their slide into malignancy. But Stolarsky is funny; his charisma is something that I find entrancing. He’s a kind of Falstaffian character as well. His cynical worldview encompasses a kind of creative energy, but he’s a create-in-order-to-destroy personality. He’s genuine villain of the piece, but he also serves as a rebuke to what’s missing in Bruno. Bruno’s a sort of disaster of innocence and self-deception, self-beguilement. He’s unmanned by his incapacity for reflection, or for putting anything in any kind of historical framework. Stolarsky shows Bruno how much of himself he’s sacrificed to his vanity, to his fictions.
DS: Did the influence of Silicon Valley on San Francisco and the Bay area inform your depiction of that relationship and of the wider situation that unfolds around Telegraph Avenue in the book?
JL: That’s not a bad thought. But in some ways San Francisco barely exists in the book; it’s not really there. Which is how I depicted the Bay area when I wrote my first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music. In that case it was literal; there was no bridge and there was never a mention of anything over there, it was just “Oakland.” Honestly, I don’t really feel that this book tries to contend with Silicon Valley. To a certain extent, I did attempt a real engagement with the perversities and the intricacies of Berkley and Telegraph Avenue. That very specific legacy, the site where the free speech movement broke out, where the People’s Park was claimed, and where the legacy of these ideas then went to curdle—not to die, but to curdle. Still promising some kind of critique of our world, and never completely going away, but just becoming more and more uncomfortable so that Telegraph Avenue exists in a strange, frozen moment. It’s sort of like an Occupy camp that never closed down. That promise, that disappointment, those things it provokes in the soul of a leftist like myself, are so tangible there. And of course I lived on that street for a while, and I worked at Moe’s Books—less than a block from Telegraph Avenue. I was on the front lines of whatever indescribable war is still being fought in slow motion there. I was in those trenches, and yet I’m as perplexed by it, I find as inexpressible, and as mysterious, as I ever did. Of course, Bruno’s perspective on it is that of sublime naïveté. He doesn’t want to be from where he’s from. He doesn’t want those implications and those possibilities to reach into his body and define him. He’s trying, by running away to Europe, not to know. Trying to say that he doesn’t come from this place. But I do come from that place, in a way.
DS: You’ve talked in the past about feeling at home, in your fiction, in states of “alienation, paranoia, dystopia.” Do you think that’s because you come from a political and social tradition that is firmly at odds with the dominant narrative of American uber-Capitalism, or does it stem from the influences of the fictions you read and admired growing up? I’m sure it’s some combination of the two.
JL: Yes. I came of age, came to consciousness, in New York City in the late 1960s and early 70s, and it’s impossible to exaggerate how different a world that was. You can glimpse it in the backdrop of films of that time and you can read people fetishizing it—you can read me fetishizing it—but it really was a city where authority had absconded. It was a kind of dystopian ruin. New York’s sense of itself was as a place where greatness has been, but had departed. A fallen city. My visceral sense of this very vital, very teeming wasteland which was nevertheless full of living people was also overlaid by my parents’ weird mixture of idealism and disappointment. By the middle of the 70s my family, too, was falling apart. We were, increasingly, refugees from a political idealism that was being rolled back. The Reagan Revolution would make it complete, but even by the mid 70s there was a sense of confusion at what all of these extraordinary movements had come to. My parents were utterly identified with this world of dissidents. We marched against everything. I felt dispossessed of the primary American identity, at several levels. I felt like a New Yorker, an artist, a bohemian, a leftist—but hardly American. That claim felt neither attractive or available. I built the most heroic identity for myself that I could out of those tatters, but switching to the other team was never in the cards for me. I believed in all lost causes, including the New York Mets.
DS: So you were never tempted to make the switch from an Arts to a Finance major while in college then?
JL: Nah. That would have been like donning Yankee pinstripes. Plus, I wasn’t any good at that stuff. I was defined by my capacities—and my incapacities. I think I quit taking math classes in seventh or eight grade, and I never did get a college degree. I knew which team I was on.
DS: Bruno’s living with the “blot” and subsequent disfigurement reminded me of Lionel Essrog’s Tourettes Syndrome in Motherless Brooklyn and Metcalf’s swapped-out erogenous zones in Gun, With Occasional Music. All male protagonists who are stoically, and in some cases stubbornly, navigating life with these unseen afflictions, invisible crosses that they have to carry around with them everywhere. Did you yourself feel any sense of this when you were coming of age—politically, socially, emotionally—with a worldview so contrary to what you saw around you?
JL: Sure, but I think there’s something more basic. A glimpse of the void. This encompasses and outstrips any political or social context. My mother died when I was very young, and I experienced her dying as a kind of affirmation of a fundamentally morbid or nihilistic view of existence itself. I’d already been flirting with reading philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche—and I was reading a lot of Philip K. Dick and Kafka—all of whom seemed to propose that there was a kind of vertiginous black hole in the center of existence. That if you squinted at reality in just the right way, you’d identify the rupture in the façade. That postulates about how things were supposed to make sense, or fit together, were actually laughable; you’d run into the “blot” eventually [laughs]. The void, or vacuum, or lack at the heart of existence was waiting for you. So, best to spend some time contemplating it in advance.
DS: I don’t know if you’re in the habit of revisiting or reevaluating your novels, but are you ever tempted to read back through them to trace the appearances of that void that stems from the loss of your mother?
JL: Well I’ve never reread any of my books. I don’t have the appetite or maybe the courage. Anyway I feel I’ve got a perfect and complete recall, not of their contents, not of what the finished book reads like, but of the experience of writing them. I treasure my recollection of the books not as a reader would encounter them, but in my sensation of their writing. I don’t want to risk displacing that sensation and replacing it with something much thinner. I mean, really, say, I read one, and I love it—wouldn’t that be kind of thin? Just be congratulating myself for how smart I’d once been, or perhaps terrifying myself that I was no longer so smart. Not a very exalted feeling, in either case. Or, worse, if I thought it was terrible, I’d just be crushed. Perhaps unable to go on autographing the book when people handed me copies. I’d want them all pulped instead, and feel embarrassed for having spoken of the book proudly. Neither outcome—admiring the thing or finding it inadequate—seems to lead to anything very charming. Instead I preserve what I still have, so tangibly, going all the way back to the earliest books: the sensations of exploring what I meant. Exploring my intuitions and making these contraptions that were meant to embody them, to be containers for them. Those are sweet and detailed and interesting memories to have.
Anyway, on the level that you’re talking about, the fact that I’ve written again and again about the loss of my mother, and how that predisposes me to a fairly lonely view of what the universe has in store for us, I don’t need persuasion! [laughs]. It’s obvious to me as it would be to anyone who read more than two or three of my books. That—as much as I might also be trying to charm you or make you feel that we’re all in this together and that I love you and I’m glad you’re reading my book—I’m forced as well to give you a glimpse of that deathly vacuum at the heart of my being. What’s weird is how it predates the actual death of my mother. Perhaps it has to do with my grandmother’s darkness and the way she instilled in me a sense that the Holocaust was the defining fact of human history. So by the time my mother actually died, there was a part of me that said “Yes, of course, this happens too. Now it’s happened to me.”
DS: So often down through the years, when I’ve finished one of your books, I have that terrible, greedy thought that says “now I want to see this as a movie.” Based on what you’ve been speaking about, I wonder if you worry that, when the inevitable film adaptations do happen, that feeling at the heart of the books will be lost or distorted in a way that is impossible to deal with.
JL: Well it’s funny, you’re raising a very interesting and very sore point [laughs]. There have been lots of attempts. In a strange way, I’m tempted to echo my remarks just now about not reading the books in favor of continuing to be allowed to dream about them instead. I’ve had all sorts of close calls with really wonderful filmmakers, but maybe I’m the luckiest writer on earth for having had so many of these very interesting unfulfilled projects to contemplate. As She Climbed Across the Table has been optioned and developed three completely separate times. It’s gone into development and turnaround, then disappeared and come back. The same is true of Gun, With Occasional Music. Fortress of Solitude has had two lives, and is maybe headed into a third life, as a possible film. A constant tease: someone has a vision for the book, and then it evaporates. I’ve become fatalistic about it, an obvious result, but I’ve also become weirdly happy with the middle space I’ve wandered into. I get to think about all these virtual films. In the alternate reality where there’s a multiplex full of all the films made from my books, you would go from one theater to the next and you would see one by David Lynch and you would see another by David Cronenberg and another by Darren Aronofsky. Leos Carax, the mad French genius, was once trying to make a version of Girl in Landscape. David Gordon Green was flirting with one of them at one point. The Alan Pakula version of Gun, With Occasional Music. Or the Hampton Fancher version. How could the real result ever be as good as that fantasy? So I just wander in my mind through that alternate reality multiplex, looking at the David Lynch version and so forth. That might be good enough.
DS: One final question: as a life-long fan and aficionado of Bob Dylan’s music, how do you feel about his Nobel Prize win?
JL: I hope he’ll drag it around on tour and bring it onstage, the way he did with his Oscar.