Amphibious Fiction

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Jasun Horsley on A Gambler’s Anatomy and Jonathan Lethem’s Autopsy Scars

“One part of me tends to conform to expectations, and accepts a useful but hollow role in an ongoing charade that I don’t feel invested in; the other part of me is making this deep, fugitive, dissident investigation that’s doomed. And I can’t find the bridge between the two.”

—Jonathan Lethem

Autopsy Scars

From the first line of A Gambler’s Anatomy, the new Jonathan Lethem novel, the author’s presiding preoccupation is present, front and center: the writer’s blot. The blot is a literal blind spot, an area in the protagonist’s visual field where everything blurs and becomes undefined. It is whatever you need it to be.

Lethem’s novels are written in code. I’m afraid the only way to adequately represent the experience of reading them is to review them that way too, to mirror their cipherous nature as best I can, casual reader be damned. Lethem’s Muse is a mistress of metaphor. And since Lethem strives to be as faithful to her as he can be, he endeavors to translate her Transmission accurately as metaphor. This then leaves it to the reader to complete the novels that Lethem, in his fidelity, leaves unfinished. The truth is not in what the cipher reveals about the code, but what the act of decoding reveals about the one who is doing the decoding. At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Lethem’s theme is revealed explicitly after Bruno (the telepathic gambler protagonist of the book) contemplates his inability to provide the doctors in a hospital with symptoms that would make his patient-status official among them. “And so it was as if he did not exist.” The absence of symptoms makes Bruno a non-person in the context of the hospital, where only a clear symptom is seen as a positive. This is the world in which Lethem’s literary avatars wander throughout all of his fiction, seeking a way to exist as something other than a negative assertion of symptomatic identity.

Bruno’s eventual diagnosis, the reason for his seizure at the gambling table, turns out to be another perfect metaphor on the question of identity: vasovagal, or when “one loses consciousness at the sight of one’s own blood.” When what’s inside and unseen emerges and is seen, when the unconscious becomes conscious, the “natural” reaction is to become unconscious. Black out: the power of denial.

A Gambler’s Anatomy is about denial of the deep. The Blot, Lack from As She Climbed Across the Table, Noteless’ holes and the chaldron from Chronic City: the prevailing metaphor of Lethemia is the all-consuming presence of that which is not. It is as if Lethem is trying to figure out how to write and end up with a blank page.

The blot is caused by a terminal kind of face cancer. The parasitical nature of identity, a metaphor to end them all, just as if Lethem is committing slow hari kiri, death by a thousand pen-pricks. The blot, we learn, is most acute for Bruno when his gaze is directed upward. Hence: “he’d become so concerned with what lay underfoot.” His gaze is being directed downward, as he wanders through the pre- and post-apocalyptic streets of Berlin, surrounded by the ghosts of “famous Nazi physicians.” A similar pattern is traced earlier, like scars from an autopsy, in the encounter Bruno has, before his first collapse, with the otherworldly waitress in the gambler’s den. Since the waitress’ face is covered by a leather mask and her vagina is totally exposed, Bruno’s gaze is compelled towards the nether regions.

When Bruno collapses a second time, it is on a patch of broken pavement by the river. He ruminates on the irony of how, if he had collapsed outside the hospital, he would be surrounded by intense and compassionate interest, while here he is ignored as a derelict. On one side of the river he is an opportunity, on the other an inconvenience. But here, in the dirt and debris, he discovers his gambler’s stone, a cubed cobblestone which he marks with his own blood and turns into the tool of his trade. He dyes the makeshift die with the substance of his dying: his own DNA.

At this point, Lethem’s mania for metaphor is in danger of consuming his narrative whole and leaving nothing but a blot.

“It was as if Bruno had rolled a die and revealed some previously unknown face: zero.”

The gambler’s stone—which Bruno sees in his delirium as “the most valuable thing he owned”—is the proof of his existence needed to counter the city’s denial of him. When he wakes in the hospital, the same object reassures him that his experience by the river was not just hallucination. By affirming rather than obscuring, the die is the blot’s “crooked, obtrusive twin.” It is matter to anti-matter, the proof of Bruno’s existence as a futile philosophical buffer against the blot’s insistence of the opposite, now made tangible as the ultimate symptom of all: the end of the line.

If Lethem’s texts are written in code, what are they code for? The answer is that Lethem’s recurring preoccupation with what exists (not) on the other side of identity is the oldest quest there is, the quest for enlightenment. Or is that what I project onto the random Rorschach of the author’s unconscious, this blot of a text–and is there a difference?

“It occurred to Bruno that he was being readied for that moment when anything endearing about you was revealed as etched in dust then swept over a cliff.” The only worthwhile preoccupation of a writer is death, and its even more unfathomable and obtrusive twin, eternity. “You asked to look, but you have not chosen to see,” says Bruno’s first physician, the Nazi-like Dr. Scheel. The code is the blood, and once revealed to us, it spells only one thing.

Lethem flashbacks to the recent past to show how Bruno’s distant past caught up with him and pulled him back, like a rag doll. The novel is about the pull of the past. We learn that Bruno was “never a child.” His identity/mask/face became the only way to escape the telepathic din of the collective and escape into the shallows of self. In order not to be drowned out by the other, Bruno learned to mold himself to fit the contours of what the other most wanted to see. This is what victims of abuse do, though the insinuation here is beyond subtle, closer to infinitesimal. But, like someone running from unbearable trauma, where Bruno goes is wherever he needs to go in order not to be somewhere else. “You find me here because nothing keeps me elsewhere,” he says.

The quest for identity is itself the only kind of identity that can withstand the perennial failure of its questing. When the seeker finds, he ceases to be.

“My lies are harmless.”

This is Lethem the writer’s continual beseech. Believe me when I tell you: I mean no harm. Lethem is an innocuous genius, which is an oxymoronic necessity, because a virus must imitate its host in order not to be rejected by it.

Bruno’s primary drive seems to have been to uncouple himself from his past. When that past finally catches up with him, it is as the shadow-doppelgänger Stolarsky, who apes his moves (learns backgammon) and then scuppers his fortune. An agent of fate who hacks into the gambler’s “pure will” and clouds his vision with an emerging new awareness on the horizon of his mind: that if the past is a prison, the future is a death sentence. The shadow marks him, hooks him, and reels him in through the wound. Stolarsky is Darth Vader (his nickname in Berkeley, where he runs an “evil empire” of chain stores), calling Luke back to the dark side where he belongs.

Jonathan Lethem does not know who or what he is, but he always suspects the worst. He is the least fixed, most formless of author voices, and the most improbable contender for the Mount Rushmore of Literati. Why? Because he has no face he doesn’t wear as a mask, no voice that doesn’t sound like an echo of the writer he never quite managed to be. (Dick? Mailer? Highsmith? A fusion of all three?) Above all things, Lethem is unimpressed with himself, and nothing is more impressive than a genuine lack of self-regard. Did I say genuine? Lethem’s sorcerer’s cloak is so masterfully designed and donned that he passes for a muggle even in his own eyes.

Do not be fooled. He is hustling us.

If his “only real talent” is to “inspire fantasy”—so what? The same could be said of Jesus—or Hitler.

Bruno’s “face had to be wrecked for him to be saved.” The cloak has to be cast aside for the voice to become true–even if there is nothing at all behind either.

The Bermuda Triangle of Self (Book Two)

Behringer, the surgeon who “saves” Bruno, is the flip-side of Lethem’s ongoing self-abnegation as an author. Not the vapid gigolo who floats through a sea of fetishism but the narcissistic technician for whom craft is everything, the maestro of destruction who profits from human misery. Coyote, the trickster, Behringer doesn’t even remember Bruno’s name while operating on him, and refers to him internally as “the German.” “In Behringer’s view, it was all meat, the surface and depth alike.” (Stolarsky runs a hamburger business.) This even includes the Bermuda Triangle of self, the elusive identity, the other side of Bruno’s face. What’s behind the mask? To Behringer it’s all the same, home for the toxic tumor that’s calling him. For Bruno, who undergoes the return of his innate telepathic capacity under surgery and merges with Behringer to witness his own deconstruction from the outside, it is a literal answer to the Zen koan: what did your face look like before it was formed?

Like Behringer, who has Jimi Hendrix songs playing in the theater while he operates, Lethem is a surgeon who works to the self-selected soundtrack of popular culture. This is perhaps literally true (I am not privy to Lethem’s private work process), but it is certainly figuratively so (the novel is a mashup of influences). Lethem’s soul is a sounding board for the culture that only seemed to spawn it but that built a matrix around it. But is the matrix a prison or is it a womb–and is there a difference?

As a reader, finding the intentional metaphors in Lethem’s fiction is one thing. The spiked gold is there to get our attention so we will look for more (or to con us into staking a claim; it could go either way). But it’s the unintended metaphors that are the real gold. But how to tell the difference? Only Lethem can say for sure, but can even he be sure which meanings are intended and which not?

Lethem’s fiction prose at its best (As She Climbed Across the Table, Chronic City, much of A Gambler’s Anatomy) unfolds as metaphor, not as a narrative with metaphorical pretensions. This means it lacks the usual narrative drive of fiction, especially genre fiction. It seems unformed, embryonic, as if existing within (though not confined to) the vesica piscis between his own skull and the reader’s, as a form of literary transference. Another way of saying this: Lethem writes amphibious fiction, half inside him, half outside. It is still gestating even though it seems to be out, done, on the page, because there’s an umbilical cord yet to be severed, leading back to the ocean of the author’s body (his unconscious life). It’s unfixed, the words wobble on the page and the spaces between them seem too wide.

A third way of saying this might be that Lethem himself doesn’t know what he is doing. He is an amateur, a gambler, with the technique of a master and the cojones of a hustler. He leaves his narratives to fate. Like Philip K. Dick with his I Ching, Lethem rolls dice with every line. Yet, like Dick, his midwife arms are bloody up to the elbows. It is disconcerting to witness.

Too Much Myself

Post-surgery, when the bandages are finally removed, Bruno undergoes a kind of negative enlightenment experience. He retains a version of the blot, “one which hovered translucently at the center of his sight, a thing seen but not seen.” This caught my attention. “Seen and Not Seen” is the title of a Talking Heads song about changing one’s face through will power. It’s the song I named my book after, a book Lethem was the first person ever to read, in a series of PDFs which I emailed to him while he was traveling around Europe by train, working out Bruno’s fate. I know this because he mentioned his location to me at the time, and because he introduced an afterword he wrote for Seen and Not Seen by noting that he was in Berlin. I didn’t put all the pieces together until I read A Gambler’s Anatomy, however, and until I talked to Lethem about it. It was only then I realized that our literary entanglement was complete. This fish is all a piece. How many faces are there behind the face? In Seen and Not Seen, Lethem’s influence is front and center (the book is partially about him). In A Gambler’s Anatomy, my influence is totally invisible-except to me and Lethem.

Coming back to negative enlightenment, Bruno experiences “the collapse of his romance with the formerly unseen world.” While blinded, he could imagine a better world; now he cannot “deny the crushing fact that there was nothing worth seeing.” After this comes another flake of purest Lethem: “If it was a page in a magazine, he would have turned it.” But Bruno’s world is not a magazine.

Bruno is now faced with the supreme challenge of sincerity/authenticity: “to forego irony and indirection completely.” No easy challenge for a writer of fiction. Bruno realizes in his newfound, undesired nakedness that “I developed the blot as a barricade… apparently it was meant to restrict the kind of thought leakage that I suffered during the surgery.” That, and as a child.

Behringer/Lethem coins a name for this leakage: “intraoperative consciousness.” A world in which there is no boundary between self and other is a world in which there is no self or other. In that world, Bruno can’t escape the truth, which is that the truth is what he is most desperate to escape from. “I feel too much like myself,” he laments to Behringer. At this point, Bruno begins to wonder, idly, if he actually died in surgery and is lost in some cunningly assembled Bardo realm. He doesn’t much care: “If he was dead, he could live with that.” Bruno has just completed the spiritual quest of dying in life. Trouble is, he doesn’t even know it.

After this thematic peak, I stopped making pencil notes in the margins. I began to feel a growing sense of disappointment as the novel seemed to meander into some fuzzy, edgeless spaces and veer very far from the promised horror of the slow build-up. Worse, the book seemed to be veering into romance. Perhaps this is how Bruno feels also (the fuzzy disappointment), as he tries to adapt to his newly lost identity through the most obvious of methods, that of sex-love? Maybe it’s even how Lethem felt, as he tried to find the ground after pulling it out from under himself? Were all those gold flakes placed there in an extended case of cryptomnesia? Where is the pay streak here?

Bruno reaches out to Madchen (the masked sex doll waitress) in Germany, via phone lines, two souls connecting on a dark sea of awareness. Bruno lays out the fairy-tale machinery of the text for her, and us, so there will be no mistaking it: a reworking of the myth of Persephone, or perhaps closer, that of Orpheus & Eurydice, two souls wandering through the underworld.

Though it takes him a while to realize it, Madchen mirrors the state of Bruno’s soul when he first saw her: a faceless cunt, a black hole, a trick, a fetish object for a weary mind. He collapses at the sight of it, of her, and of his own blood, all one unveiling. Somehow, it’s not clear how, Bruno’s collapse relates to how he missed the chance “to do something very important for the woman” (something to do with where his eyes fall, like Orpheus being warned not to look back?). Madchen is the witness to his collapse, and though she cannot help him either, “that she was present to see was still his salvation.” (Shades of Eyes Wide Shut here, a truly terrible Stanley Kubrick movie which Lethem inexplicably admires.) So what is it about being seen as one falls that allows for one to be saved? Perhaps because, at this moment, there is no longer anything to hide, or to hide from?

In the mutual seduction scene between Bruno and Stolarsky’s partner in which the method is strip-backgammon, Bruno becomes the exact male equivalent of Madchen (due to arrive the next day): an exposed erect penis under a masked visage. His penis then becomes a lever by which his opponent handles him, and he no longer knows, or cares, if he is winning or losing. But this penis not a toy–is mightier than a sword. The novel becomes perhaps unwittingly bleak at this point. Why would Bruno (or Lethem) fall for it? Sex, drugs, gambling: these vices do not set the soul free, they lock it down into form. Have I lost Lethem at this point, or has he lost me?

The Book is a Cube

A Gambler’s Anatomy is a cube. 3 books, 9 chapters, each broken into 4 parts. 36 parts in total, which is 6x6 (six rolls of a die). A tablet, a gambler’s stone. There is a cold war raging. Now the book is closed and the game is over and I feel like I lost but I don’t know what my bet was or what the rules were. Bruno speaks for Lethem the author again, as well as vice versa, when he admits: “He wouldn’t tamper with a sequence that seemed foretold, beyond his control.”

After this line, there is only one more penciled note in the margins, on page 247, after a passage about how Bruno “had imagined life to have a top side and an underneath.” The note reads, “Shallow and deep. Wealth and status = surface. Poverty and powerlessness = depth.” Lethem writes: “It was to that larger layer that Bruno had sunk, or been reduced, gladly… . Bruno had forsaken luxury, possessiveness, wagering, everything that made him himself. Yet he still existed, custodian of a tall, weird body on a rudderless voyage through time.”

When I spoke to Lethem after finishing A Gambler’s Anatomy, he addressed his internal “Occupy movement” between the 1% surface and the 99% depths. “This is a self-accusation above all. It’s about the way those radical possibilities are themselves as useless as a tumor that gives me insights that I can’t actualize. It never seems to be produced in any effective way. It is about as oblique as Bruno’s idea of himself as someone with extra-sensory powers. Its only result is that he feels less powerful. And no one else is even sure that it’s there at all. My everyday behavior looks normative and bourgeois from the perspective of those idealisms. So it’s a kind of exile, a constantly self-generating division from a desire that’s become displaced from me historically and practically, and which I keep rehearsing again, in the space between Chase and Perkus, or Bruno and Plybon.”

Everything that Rises Does Not Converge

Everything fails Bruno in the end. Or is it that Bruno fails everyone and everything? He doesn’t find belonging in that larger layer of the underworld, among the disenfranchised; he doesn’t find solace in the arms of his Eurydice, who betrays him with such ease and rapidity that it’s unclear if any betrayal has occurred (if she was ever anything besides another of Bruno’s damaged projections). But everything betrays Bruno, starting and ending with himself. In the end, I even felt as though Lethem—the creator—had betrayed him. And by the end, Bruno is revealed—by what seems too much deus ex machina—as an operative of the Empire who doesn’t even know it and who, when he finds out, doesn’t much seem to care. Perhaps this is Lethem’s deepest fear?

Like Bruno, Lethem seems defeated by his own depths. He does not find a home there, either, and so he cannot provide direction through that underworld for his poor, hapless protagonist. Having stripped Bruno of all those (negative) attributes he gave him, he is like Dr. Frankenstein staring in horror and disgust at what he has created, then abandoning his soul-child to a grim literary fate. It’s too soon to say if this is intentional metaphor (though Bruno is called a stitch-up of Frankenstein and his monster by Stolarsky), unintentional metaphor, or the failure (intended or not) of the metaphor to hold its own against a too-rapidly unraveling narrative. A Gambler’s Anatomy left me, the reader, feeling faintly bereft, robbed of meaning, and forced to admit I might have spiked the ground, myself, due to too much personal investment in Lethemia.

But if I read the story right, Lethem’s gambling protagonist winds up exactly where he started, only now without a face or a name. Where once he was blind, now he can see that he is blind. He has moved from oblivious limbo to self-aware limbo. Nameless and faceless is presumably how Bruno began life, embryonic inside Lethem’s interior spaces, while he (Lethem) struggled to pull forth the most unappetizing parts of himself, identify them (the tumor), and expunge them through a literary act of self-surgery.

So is this all about Lethem/Bruno trying and getting to be a somebody, and then trying to get free of a world-forged identity that can never match the soul’s expression? What is an author to do once his own reputation not only precedes him but exceeds all expectations and beliefs about himself?

Perhaps this is overly speculative, but there does seem to be a major patch of undeveloped land in the terrain of Lethem’s latest novel. The last and shortest book in the novel crams enough “superficial action” to fill another novel, and the kindest criticism I can offer of A Gambler’s Anatomy in this regard is that it is too short. The metaphorical pulse, in this final most crucial passage, becomes weak to the point of fatality. I was expecting, hoping for, a big reveal that caused a backward ripple effect to reconstitute what came before and cast it in a darker, more coherent light, taking the seemingly random meandering of Bruno’s steps and Lethem’s prose and transforming them into meaning. Instead it is as if the scaffolding of the narrative collapses under the weight of Lethem’s admirably unformed metaphor. The surface is too thin to hold the deep in place, and the story drifts away, like a melting ice plate, taking the newly nebulous Bruno along with it. It is as if the scaffolding of the narrative collapses under the weight of Lethem’s admirably unformed metaphor. The surface is too thin to hold the deep in place, and the story drifts away, like a melting ice plate, taking the newly nebulous Bruno along with it.

Postscript

After writing this piece, I recorded a two and a half hour conversation with Lethem about the book and other things. Talking to Lethem helped clarify, for me, my feeling of disappointment about the way the novel ended. We talked about the similarities between Lethem’s Bruno and my late brother, Sebastian Horsley, whom Lethem knew about from reading Seen and Not Seen. Even more unquestionably than Bruno, my brother’s lifestyle as a dandy led to his complete and final self-erasure: he died of a heroin overdose in June of 2010. The association I made, rightly or wrongly, between Bruno and my brother intensified my feeling of disappointment, even despair, at Bruno/Lethem’s failure to find a way through the identity loss of the surgery, into a new and more enlightened life, an existence free from the need for masks.

What I didn’t tell Lethem at the time was how much Bruno’s physical symptoms reminded me of my own. As a sufferer for twenty-plus years of chronic fatigue syndrome and the corresponding body pains, I would endure, often on a daily basis, a hideous and insidious kind of face ache. A couple of weeks after we spoke, I was listening to an old audio recording I’d made for my wife, eight years previously on July 23rd 2008, and my former self spontaneously begins describing his face ache:

My face is really, it’s just really started aching since I’ve come out on the heath and since I’ve even been talking. Um. It’s like a mask, this feeling like I’m wearing a mask and underneath are sort of worms and corruption and, and then underneath that’s the skull. Like I’ve got to take off the mask to clean out all that gunk, put on a new face. Those are my symptoms, doctor. What do you recommend?

I sent the file to Lethem as a kind of gotcha. As if to say: “You see, Jonathan, what you are writing about is real! You only think you are writing fiction, but the stakes are much higher than you know.”

Lethem sent one word in response: “Perfect.”

Jasun Horsley is the author of Seen & Not Seen: Confessions of a Movie Autist and several other books on extra-consensual perceptions. He has a weekly podcast called The Liminalist: The Podcast Between and a blog. For more info, go to http://auticulture.com.