First, let’s deal with the frustration. Having not got along with Lethem’s fiction since Chronic City (which, we know, is not long but it’s long enough), we read The Blot, page by page with growing excitement. Yes, we thought. We like it. Good. That is good. We even went so far as to scoff at Lionel Shriver’s Guardian review which said this was two thirds of a good book, with the final third being (her word) ‘rubbish’ – but that two thirds of a good book was far better than most books (which were themselves entirely rubbish). To put it another way, we thought of the man from Sesame Street, poised at the top of the stairs with however many cakes precariously balanced on trays. Today, we thought, this week, that man will make it all of the way down the stairs without dropping a single cake. But the man always falls. More than that, the existence of the man presupposes the fall. He’s there to fall. As with the man, so with Jonathan Lethem, as with the tray of cakes so with The Blot.
But for a good portion of the book there is hope. More than hope, in fact. For a good portion of the book, there is what we would call vintage Lethem, in the sense that it is good and unusual and tricky and laced with intrigue. We follow Alexander Bruno, a sort of international gambler whose game is backgammon. Yes, backgammon. He’s on his way to Berlin on the back of a rather disastrous defeat in Singapore. His pimp? procurer? Edgar Falk has set him up with a game with a whale, a rich sort who Falk thinks Bruno can take for serious cash – and Bruno needs it, he doesn’t even have dough for his accommodation. But there is a problem greater than the lack of money: Bruno has a blot, an expanse of darkness at the middle of his vision. He wonders if the blot is at the root of his defeat in Singapore. “Why get too fancy about it? He might be dying.”
The Berlin episode, which begins hopefully (Bruno getting the number of ‘a tall girl in black tights’ on the ferry to Kladow) ends in disaster, a night-time ambulance ride, an ugly nosebleed. We skip backwards to Singapore and see Bruno and Falk plotting in a discrete member’s only club. It is here he intersects with an old schoolfriend Keith Stolarsky, travelling in shabby style with his other half, Tira Harpaz. We don’t get the sense that Stolarsky and Bruno ever really liked each other (although Stolarsky behaves as if Bruno was someone he admired for his mystery, calling him Flashman after the character in George Macdonald Fraser’s novels). There is also a simmering flirtation with Harpaz, questions as to the kind of relationship she has with Stolarsky. This is the seed bed from which the rest of The Blot expands.
Diagnosed with a tumour residing behind his face and presented with a choice between palliative care or radical surgery, Stolarsky flies Bruno back to the US and agrees to pay for the ministrations of a miracle-working doctor called Noah Behringer. In an impressive (if nausea-inducing) midsection (which recalls Philip Roth’s Everyman in its surgical detail), we are privy to the operation itself (and later, as Bruno’s previously hinted psychic abilities come more to the fore, at least in terms of Bruno’s worries about them, we learn that Bruno was aware of the operation as a result of seeing through Behringer’s eyes). Newly enshrined in a medical mask, Stolarsky sets Bruno up in a small flat in San Francisco, on Telegraph Avenue to be precise, and whether it is proximity to Michael Chabon’s own Telegraph Avenue or to something more complex at work (Lethem has structured the book as if doubling through a game of backgammon so there’s obviously something at work there but it isn’t immediately clear what the doubling does beyond accelerating the mayhem and shaking the foundations of the reality of the book), it is from this point that book starts to fail to live up to its early promise.
Stolarsky owns a burger joint, a game and clothes emporium, an apartment block, various other properties he allows to stand ruined and empty in order to drive down other local businesses. Bruno is given the keys to the kingdom, for a time, but quickly gets the scent of a faultline, locals who hate Stolarsky, plots to nibble at his wealth in ways they suspect Stolarsky won’t notice (but he notices everything – and it isn’t just him, Harpaz seems to know everything too, everyone behaves as if, for the most part, this is a world without secrets). Throughout Bruno shares his fears of what his revived psychic abilities will reveal – and we hear how much they affected him in his youth, but we don’t really see any examples of genuine psychic ability. Towards the end of the book, when Bruno and Stolarsky face off, Stolarsky’s evaluation – that everyone is more psychic than Bruno – seems bang on the money. Bruno reveals himself to be kind of a dope. Stolarsky appears to be someone who needs nemeses and he sees potential in Bruno that is eventually unrealised. But the face-off between them (and between Bruno and Harpaz and between Stolarsky and Bruno’s not-even-really-love interest, Madchen) becomes background to a larger, messier local riot that gives the reader the sense of Lethem throwing everything but the kitchen sink at proceedings. But all it does is make you question the math – you’ve brought us here but why? And then you are distanced (which may be the point, this may be Verfremdungseffekt).
By the climax, a book that started with the promise of As She Climbed Across the Table (Lethem’s White Noise) burns out with the distortion of Gun, With Occasional Music (which we know is some people’s favourite Lethem, to this day, but not us). Before we started reading, as a result of Dissident Garden and Lucky Alan, we were nervous. The Blot shows that Lethem still has that thing we liked, can still lead us by the nose, but his grip on us is not what it was. The jury remains out.
Any Cop?: Like Shriver said (dang it), two thirds of this book are tip top and the last third is random and somewhat irritating. Good journey, then, and lousy destination.