Jonathan Lethem has one of the most eclectic literary careers around, ranging from science fiction to realism—and sometimes, both at once—and from long-form nonfiction to comic books. He's netted numerous honors, including the MacArthur "genius" grant. His new novel, A Gambler's Anatomy, is the tale of a professional backgammon hustler who believes he's developing telepathic powers as the result of a tumor growing on his face (you read that correctly). We spoke with Lethem about how these diverse strands came together into a novel, among others topics, such as how music informs his writing.
INDY: You've done a lot of work with music and literature, from You Don't Love Me Yet to your 33 1/3 book and your interviews with musicians, most recently Keith Richards. Do you feel learning about rock and the creative process translates back into your creative writing?
JONATHAN LETHEM: The relationship between me and rock music is—and make sure you include the air quotes here—me "professionalizing" it, in a sense. I take this handful of assignments from Rolling Stone and Billboard and other places, and have these kind of enviable encounters with Dylan and James Brown. I got to go a little more scholarly with the 33 1/3 Talking Heads book.
But these really are the adventures of a lucky fan. Ninety-five percent of my relationship to music is that I'm a wallflower at the party. I don't play; I'm not a professional music writer. I'm basically a guy with 60,000 songs on my iTunes, and sometimes I like to hang out with musicians and talk about music.
A Gambler's Anatomy deals with a number of different topics—eye blots, backgammon, psychic powers. What was the initial inspiration for it?
For me, there usually needs to be a convergence of several ideas. Motherless Brooklyn, for example, there's no real native reason why Tourette's and private detectives and Brooklyn should coexist in the same narrative. But for me, when there's an intersection of things that are charged and provocative, it's very exciting when they come together somewhere in the middle.
I'd been thinking for a long time about writing a gambling story—it's kind of a mode I dig, things like The Hustler or Don Carpenter's tales about pool players or the French film Bob le flambeur. I always wanted to do my own version, but it wasn't until I came across the fact that there really are backgammon hustlers that I had an angle.
I had to learn to play backgammon at a higher level than I ever had, not because the reader would necessarily know the difference, but so that I could feel some mastery of my subject. So I played hundreds of hours of online backgammon, against machines who are designed to beat anyone, and sometimes real opponents hiding behind a database. I wasn't able to go into some high-end private club and take on people for money, but I still did absorb quite a bit of backgammon lore.
I'd also been reading about this kind of super-problematic deep-face surgical intervention for a while. It reminded me of horror stories I liked: the films Eyes Without a Face and Seconds. I was thinking about this, and wanted to write a story that had a horrifying turn in the middle of it, this surgical sequence.
The third part of this was I was living in Berlin on sabbatical at the American Academy, and I realized I was so interested in writing about where I was, and it made me think about how I'd never written an expatriate story. My characters are often dispossessed, but I wanted to do a literal expatriation story, the sort of "ugly American abroad" mode.
It's a bit of a stew—a lot of ingredients.
Yeah, I like my books to have a lot of surprises and turns and different textures in the mix. I suppose I'm more of a stew maker than a soufflé cook.
Well, at least you had an excuse to get sucked into online games for hundreds of hours.
The thing I like about games—and online games in some ways exaggerate this property—is that they're an arena where time kind of disappears, where you go outside of life. In the space of a game board or an all-night poker match, everything's heightened, and nothing else matters. It's like a world within a world. I'm always interested in pocket universes—the kind of desolate side of sensual reality.
Tell us about the research you did for the book.
I had to do a lot of research on the neurosurgery for sure. I used two real hospitals because I had to feel comfortable with that material. Otherwise, this was a relatively research-light book by design. I wanted to tell a tale this time—follow a character, tell a story, have a plot, just make a lot of stuff up.
For the telepathic elements of the book, I was curious if you talked to the Rhine Research Center at Duke, which deals with psychic research.
That's cool! I didn't know that was there. I might visit it while I'm in the area. I actually did almost no research for that part of the book. I've read stories with those elements, and to me they have more of a mythic or archetypal component. It was more this legacy of fictional treatments I was drawing on. Bruno doesn't go into any real-world scientific testing, or even tell anyone that he believes he has this power. I was more thinking about sources in other stories like Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside or Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Game Theory"