A Master of Word Games
“Motherless Brooklyn” author Jonathan Lethem’s new novel explores the twisted reality of gambling
Jonathan Lethem is known for writing critically acclaimed novels and experimental fiction, but he also gambles a little on the side. It’s something of a serious hobby for him.
“I play poker,” he says. “That’s the only gambling I’m really, really comfortable with. It’s penny-ante. It’s low stakes and friendly. But it is gambling.”
Lethem may not be a high roller, but in the world of contemporary literature he’s a big shot. A professor of creative writing and English at Pomona College in Claremont, Lethem is a 2005 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant.” His breakout novel “Motherless Brooklyn,” about a gabby gumshoe with an uncontrollable case of word-spewing Tourette’s syndrome, won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award.
Lethem’s latest book “A Gambler’s Anatomy” is set in the high-stakes world of backgammon and follows Alexander Bruno, a globetrotting hustler with a tumor that’s throwing off his game. Lethem himself is partial for games and word play. We talked about his affinity for both in anticipation of his talk with author and former L.A. Times Book Editor David Ulin at Santa Monica’s Moss Theatre on Monday.
— Christina Campodonico
What made you want to become a writer in the first place?
At first, I wanted to paint actually, but I was avidly into all kinds of [art] forms. I think I especially found my way to literature by these bridging forms, like comic books and movies that were narrative and also visual. And this alchemy was very exciting to me. And eventually I just realized stories, for me, were where it was at.
What inspired you to write “Motherless Brooklyn”?
I didn’t know about [Tourette’s] until I read about it in Oliver Sacks. And he was really directly instrumental in my becoming interested in it. He writes twice about Tourette’s: One case history each in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars.” And in both cases they’re such extraordinary people that he’s writing about … the way Sacks writes about the human implications of neurological disorder is so stirring. And I found it just so literary to begin with that, if anything, my first thought was, ‘Oh well of course there must be a great novel about this. I can’t be the first one to think of doing this. It’s so good.’
Then I sort of groped around and realized that in a way the avenue was open, that I couldn’t see anything that would be in my way. And I somehow almost instantly and natively realized that I wanted to do it as a first-person language experiment. It was a chance for me to go into a world of language that I really hadn’t before.
What inspired you to dive into the world of backgammon and hustling for “A Gambler’s Anatomy”?
It wasn’t backgammon for a long time. I had this sensation of wanting to write about a gambler. And I’ve always liked stories of games and of gambling, novels and films like “The Hustler” with Paul Newman, but also the very fine book that it’s based on by Walter Tevis, or a film like “Bob le Flambeur” or “Croupier.” … I think I handle this idea in other places without using games or gambling directly that there’s this sort of world within the world where the stakes are immensely heightened, but also totally pointless. Like when you’re on the inside of a game, it’s everything. The rest of the world evaporates around that boundary. And if you’re outside of it, it looks like people are wasting their time. It’s nothing at all. This describes so many things that people become obsessed with, right? Their world within the world.
Games do seem to have their own language and rules. So how did you find that backgammon seemed to be the right language for this particular novel?
So for a long time I thought, ‘Oh, I guess if I’m going to finally write my gambling story it should be poker, but that seems so public and so kind of like already been chewed gum.’ It’s like on television all the time and it just seems too familiar, so when I heard about someone who I knew very slightly — actually a kid I grew up with, who I hadn’t seen in decades, but his life story seemed to include making a living as a backgammon hustler at some point — I just thought that seemed so specific and peculiar in just the way that I like and could write about. It was kind of like realizing that there weren’t a lot of Tourette’s novels lying around, that I just didn’t really see anyone having used it and that just felt really freeing.
But also backgammon has this combination of ways that both amused and interested me. On the one hand it seems very corny and homely and sort of associated with that weird thing that’s hiding inside your chess board that you never play. Or you know, there’s a dingy backgammon set in everyone’s games room or den, but it’s not the first thing you reach for. But it also has this sort of fake glamour associated with it, like you see gentleman in suits playing backgammon while sipping crème de menthe in the Playboy Mansion. And then it turns out, when you look into backgammon, that it’s really deeply invested in human civilization. It’s one of the most ancient games anyone still plays. It goes all the way back to Mesopotamia. So these weird ways in which it’s signified — it’s sort of abject and sort of mysterious at the same time — just really turned me on. I thought that sounded great.
Do you have a favorite game that you enjoy playing?
I do like backgammon, which is one of the reasons why I ended up there. I’m not a good chess player, but never-the-less I sort of identify with it and I’m kind of keen on a lot of board games. I still play sports. I still go out on the schoolyard concrete and get myself routinely humbled playing half-court games of basketball. And I also have two younger kids right now, so introducing [games] to them has also made me conscious of the weird magic of pulling out the Stratego box or something and entering into that strange language that comes with a given game. So games are a real part of my life.
Jonathan Lethem discusses “A Gambler’s Anatomy” at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24, at the Ann & Jerry Moss Theatre, New Roads School, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. $20. Visit writersblocpresents.com for tickets.