"A Gentleman's Game"
by Jonathan Lethem
Originally published in the September 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

September 5, 2016I’m hit or miss when it comes to Jonathan Lethem (when I looked back at the last post on him — for “Pending Vegan” — I saw I said the same thing then, so this is my knee-jerk reaction to hm I see). I’ve never loved anything I’ve read by him, but perhaps that can change.

I look forward to your thoughts below!

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By |2016-08-29T17:01:54+00:00August 29th, 2016|Categories: Jonathan Lethem, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. avataram August 29, 2016 at 8:57 pm

    This week in fiction interview with Lethem was interesting. I was very hopeful. This extract from the novel is super boring. I cannot imagine wading through a novel full of stilted conversations and phony characters as in this extract.

    Lethem is much better at personal history/essays than fiction. The Ecstasy of Influence was a joyful read. I will stick to that and avoid his novels.

  2. Ben August 31, 2016 at 1:44 am

    I’m from Singapore, and unfortunately none of his locale-specific descriptions ring true. Most galling were his attempts at making the Singaporean characters speak – he seemed to imagine a sort of Chinglish (most familiar to North American readers) – when in fact Singlish is a completely different language (creole, perhaps) with its distinct grammar. Also, Singaporean civil servants are known for their somewhat overly formal, British-influenced, stodgy English – for the quasi-govenment officer to speak broken English is just the sort of inaccuracy that makes the entire excerpt foolish.

  3. Nina August 31, 2016 at 4:08 am

    WHY does The New Yorker keep taking/making stories from novels? I am so tired of this and it rarely works. There are certainly short story writers in the world that could be published instead! Is this some new publishing “sell more new novels” ploy?

  4. Trevor Berrett August 31, 2016 at 11:33 am

    I believe this time will be a miss for me — I can’t see myself taking the time to read this (or the novel).

    And, Nina, many of us agree totally with your perspective. It’s totally a marketing agreement on both sides of the table — The New Yorker gets to publish something by a hot novelist, and the publishing house gets some advanced marketing. We miss out on great short stories. But this is not a new trend. It has been going on for decades, and is unlikely to change.

  5. David August 31, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    Ben, if you are right about the language issue (and I have no reason to doubt you) that is quite shocking. Surely one would not write a novel about a place and take so little care with details like that. In the interview he says he selected the location before he had ever been there and he only mentions spending a few days there while at a literary event, so maybe he just went on assumptions or the very limited experience he had.

    I share the disappointment of others that this was an excerpt. It wasn’t terrible, but it did not have me wanting to read more. That makes a nice contrast to Thomas McGuane’s “Papaya” from two weeks ago, which had me reading the story it was a sequel to the same day. Trevor, I can’t say you are making a wrong call skipping the excerpt published this week. Even if I thought it were great I would recommend waiting for the novel. Who wants to just read an excerpt?

  6. avataram August 31, 2016 at 4:41 pm

    David, In addition to the Singapore fiasco – imagine going all the way to Singapore only to hang around with other Americans – Lethem’s backgammon knowledge (at least evidenced by the interview) doesnt seem to be more than the Wikipedia entry on the game. I guess the problem with all the Jonathans – Franzen, Lethem, Safran Foer is that they have become so famous, they don’t bother doing basic research.

  7. Eric September 1, 2016 at 2:10 am

    Not much to say about this one other than “me too”. I found the lack of a real ending to be particularly annoying.

  8. Abe September 1, 2016 at 3:04 am

    Too long; didn’t read ¯\_(?)_/¯

  9. Chaotic Faith September 1, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    As a Singaporean, my eyes rolled so far out after the first 3 paragraphs I can’t bring myself to finish the rest. It writes like some juvenile wannabe’s wet dream about Singapore being an exotic tropical island filled with mysterious nooks and shady people doing unspeakable things while wearing the most unlikely fashion (NONE of my friends wear Juicy Couture). I can only say that he was conned to believe whichever island he landed on was Singapore. Not a very bright guy, obviously.

  10. Roger September 2, 2016 at 3:21 pm

    I really liked the way Lethem, in this piece, created an atmosphere that combined humor with a sense of menace. The Edgar Falk character, for instance, is simultaneously silly and scary, and his friendship/business relationship with Bruno interested me, as did Bruno overall, with his mix of bravado and vulnerability.

    I generally don’t like novel excerpts but this one seemed to work well on its own. In particular, I enjoyed seeing Bruno experience an awakening near the end, when his self-constructed identity as a swashbuckling international gambler gives way. After spending time talking and flirting with Stolarsky’s girlfriend Tira Harpaz, Bruno seems to be moved by what he’s been missing – a genuine connection in the form of romantic feelings. He starts losing those backgammon games and not particularly caring; we can feel his focus shift. It’s hitting him that a seeming buffoon like Stolarsky actually is the winner between the two of them – after all, he has Tira and he has achieved material success not by running away from his boyhood neighborhood (as Bruno did) but by buying up the businesses in that neighborhood. Stolarsky’s success is solid, grounded in and signified by real estate and Tira (not necessarily in that order), whereas Bruno’s success is derived from his skill as an itinerant backgammon gambler. It’s ironic that Bruno sees Stolarsky early in the story as dressed in a “costumed exhumed from some Dungeons & Dragons basement” – yet it is Bruno who is making his way in the world by, in Stolarsky’s words, hustling board games.

    It seems fitting that the story – I mean excerpt – ends with a shift to Falk. After Bruno loses game after game to Lim, “Falk’s entire stake was gone.” In his identity as globetrotting gambler, Bruno lives in a world of seedy selfishness, his own, that of the other players, and Falk’s. He is Falk’s “stake,” nothing more, but that “stake” (version of Bruno) is now “gone.” I’m interested in reading this novel (the advertising worked!) and finding out what kind of new identity Bruno shifts into and how he gets there. And in enjoying more of Lethem’s mastery as a stylist and writer of dialogue, among other things.

  11. Trina Day September 2, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    I lived in Singapore as an expat for many years, and found this story quite silly, but I’m not going to nit-pit about certain details in terms of dialect, etc. Because who cares, really? What rang true was the way these foreigners speak of the place–expats are endlessly complaining about how dull it is, while enjoying all the amenities and hanging around for years on end. But none of these people really speak like human beings, and the gender stereotypes are very off-putting. I mean, these are not small crimes..they are everything in fiction, if you’re trying to approximate real life/real people.

  12. Joe September 2, 2016 at 11:27 pm

    Roger, with all due respect as a person who enjoyed the piece, your praise seems almost completely end-to-end unsupportable. Silly was about the only assessment I could agree with.

    There was neither humor, nor menace.

    There was no character awakening.

    There was no sense that these characters — all of them — were cut from the cloth of a paint-the-numbers definition of what purpose characters should serve in stereotypical genre fiction.

    I sense very little possibility that these characters will change in any demonstrable way.

    Lethem’s mastery as a stylist started and ended with Motherless Brooklyn. His dialogue in this sotry is risible in its hollowness.

    I again felt as if I was reading the writing of an author who just absolutely called it in during a break ruminating about his self-styled prestige as a respected cultural thinker.

    I’m going to use this in my fiction courses as an example of how to be lazy and how to be cliche in almost every sense of the writing — fake up an exotic locale with spooky, dark bars…give the characters dialogue that could have been pulled right out of the pulps…patronize to the reader by attempting no depth in the internal lives of the characters.

    This was yet another example that TNY is absolutely, totally, completely, utterly, unequivocally and without any iota of doubt totally unconcerned with advancing the short story as an art from. They are simply concerned with working in cahoots with agents to do product placement for impending novels. The transaction is transparent.

    The only thing I use TNY fiction for any longer is as a counter-example of how to create stories that have a chance of sustainability.

  13. Eric September 3, 2016 at 12:04 am

    “There was no sense that these characters..”

    I think Joe meant “There was _a_ sense …”

  14. Eric September 3, 2016 at 12:17 am

    Joe–perhaps the characters display some internal depth when their stories are detailed at novel length? I suspect that what seems to you as being patronizing is more likely simple laziness, not doing the work to turn the novel excerpt into a real story.

    Of course that’s basically idle speculation, since even the best case for this novel still makes it less worth reading than hundreds of others that I will never have the time and energy for.

  15. Roger September 3, 2016 at 9:43 am

    Joe, what a spirited response to my post identifying specific strengths in the story. You’ve made some interesting statements.

    Do you really believe that a story should be faulted because “[t]here was no sense that these characters — all of them — were cut from the cloth of a paint-the-numbers definition of what purpose characters should serve in stereotypical genre fiction.” (Despite Eric’s kind effort to habilitate that sentence, I’m still wondering.) I have my disappointments with TNY fiction, but I’m sure I’d be disappointed more often if I was in search of “stereotypical genre fiction.”

    I get that you and other readers found the locale unconvincing and that you didn’t care for the dialogue. I know that Singapore has casinos and bars and can easily imagine private gambling taking place there, but I admit I’ve never visited. I think those who raise the question of the piece’s authenticity, whether about place or about backgammon, identify potentially significant concerns. As for Bruno’s internal depth, I’d suggest that a reader can infer that depth by paying attention to what he says, does, and how he carries himself. There is all that bravado covering up a vulnerability borne from a past that he’s ashamed of. See especially the sparkling dialogue between Bruno and Tira halfway through at the Swissotel’s bar (which is not described as “dark”). Right there on the page, but something a reader might miss if he is preoccupied with anger against the New Yorker, Lethem’s prestige, etc.

    Now, turning to the assertions early in your post: “There was neither humor, nor menace. There was no character awakening.” Perhaps these conclusions can be substantiated, but unfortunately you didn’t try. I realize they are statements about what you believe the work lacks and it can be tricky to substantiate an absence. But it can be done. For example, you might try to show the absence of an awakening by explaining how Bruno is the same at the end of the piece as he was at the beginning. (He isn’t, but it’s your argument, not mine.) To be fair, you may be planning some substantiation in a subsequent post, which I would read in the hope that it would reveal some insight about the story.

    Otherwise, cheers, and please take good care of those students. Maybe you will help one or more of them surpass Lethem!

  16. David September 3, 2016 at 1:13 pm

    Roger,

    “As for Bruno’s internal depth, I’d suggest that a reader can infer that depth by paying attention to what he says, does, and how he carries himself.”

    There is a fine line between reading carefully and reading-in. When a writer leaves us to infer what is going on he had better have done a good job of making that inference clear. In the case of Bruno I don’t see and real character change nor do I see the bravado, vulnerability, or shame you mention. Late in the game with Keith he seems to me to be winning, having a good time with the women and the drugs:

    “They were seven or ten moves into a game to which he’d barely attended when he found himself with three of Stolarsky’s men on the bar and his tongue down Cynthia Jalter’s throat.”

    “ ‘You’re patronizing me,’ Stolarsky said. ‘Take my fucking money when it’s there on the table.’

    ‘I’m a little distracted—’

    This happens near the very end. Then he lets Keith win back some of his money because he feels sorry for him. Then the drugs ran out and the party was over. I see no change, let alone one characterized by shame or some realization that Kieth did better in life than he did. I see him feeling pity for Keith, so he tries to let him leave with a little dignity by losing a few games at the end.

    I don’t know what the point of Bruno meeting Keith was, but I don’t see it changing him in any way. The encounter is, we are told, the beginning of a losing streak, but it’s not clear what the connection is. At best, I would guess that losing games on purpose out of pity might have made him soft and that’s why he started losing, but I don’t know. I didn’t find much about Bruno to capture my interest, so I am really not that curious to find out when the book is published.

  17. Roger September 3, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    David, I share your preference that a writer be clear – or, as I’d put it, clear enough — about the implications he leaves for the reader to figure out. But a story is spoiled if the writer is too obvious, just as a story can be spoiled if a writer is too opaque. Some of the greatest American short story writers, like Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, often leave the reader with a lot of work to do in order to divine meaning and derive satisfaction from a story.

    I’m comfortable that Lethem hit the sweet spot about implying an awakening on Bruno’s part. In connection with that, I think it would be a mistake to be certain that Bruno deliberately lost those last six games to Solarsky out of pity. Rather, Bruno “couldn’t tell” whether he’d lost the games “willfully or not.” And when he lets Stolarsky double him out, he does so because he “didn’t want to take Stolarsky for too much, he couldn’t say why.” So the way he plays could be based on pity, which would not hold much dramatic significance, or it could be caused by some other reason, such as an incipient rejection by Bruno of the kind of “successful” life, and identity, he has constructed. A life that he’s come to be ashamed of, it’s suggested: “He had got out without looking Tira Harpaz in the eye, and that, in the end, was what had seemed to matter most.” In reading this scene, it’s important, I’d submit, to bear in mind the scenes earlier in the piece where Bruno spent time with Tira and what that made him feel like.

    Lethem definitely isn’t being obvious here, but I see him as doing a superb job of making his implication clear enough. Similarly, once that losing streak has run its course and “Falk’s entire stake was gone,” it seems clear enough to me that Bruno’s identity as a roaming gambler, as someone else’s “stake,” is gone, too. A real pleasure, I think, when a writer drops clues that are just clear enough to let a reader do his job; it pulls me in to the story and makes me feel the drama more acutely.
    And if reasonable, careful readers end up reaching differing conclusions because a writer pushes for nuance rather than overt explication? Well, that is the chance that Lethem (and Hemingway and O’Connor) took.

    P.S.: The bravado manifests itself in, among other ways, Bruno’s cocky dialogue about how he is the best backgammon player in the world whose attention can be drawn only by playing for very high stakes. And the vulnerability reveals itself when Bruno tells Tira about his childhood, which, we’re told, he always conceals out of embarrassment. (“It was only his old habit he needed to overcome, that of pretending his Berkeley childhood belonged to someone other than his present self.”)

  18. David September 3, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    Roger, you put a lot of weight on the “couldn’t tell”, but when it is followed by “he let Stolarsky double him out” (emphasis added) and he “gave back many thousands of the Singapore dollars he’d won, and with relief” (emphasis added) and “Bruno didn’t want to take Stolarsky for too much” the rest of the paragraph makes the strong case that he intentionally let Stolarsky win some money back. Either that or the paragraph is flat out contradictory, which isn’t good writing.

    As for the earlier conversation with Tira, nothing there suggests he has created a false identity of his present self (he would never get a game with Lim if he were not the player he seems to be) or that he is ashamed of it. They only talk about his distant past when he seems to feel any conflicting emotions, but that is all about his previous life, not his present one. I thought his wish to not make eye contact with her was because if he did she would know he had thrown the last games and he does not want that. But again, given the little Letham gives us to go on, who knows what it means?

  19. Roger September 3, 2016 at 4:33 pm

    David, I’ve somehow given you the impression that I think Bruno didn’t let Stolarsky win. But that is not what I’m saying. The key issue is why Bruno lets him win. You had contended that he lets Stolarsky win “because he feels sorry for him.” I disagreed, and still disagree, that we should be certain, or even confident, that Bruno was acting out of pity, as you’d contended. The likelier motive still seems to me to be that Bruno has lost interest in inhabiting the swashbuckling gambler persona he’s built for himself in order to be a successful money maker. That is why he lets Stolarsky win, not because he feels sorry for him. The difference is very important, as the interpretation I’m positing signals an impending identity shift for Bruno.

    You are right that the earlier conversations with Tira don’t suggest that Bruno is feeling doubts about his identity or that he is ashamed of it. That happens later, at the end. The conversations with Tira are important for a different, but related reason:during those scenes, Bruno feels the glimmering of feelings for her, a woman who is part of a couple with the distinctly non-suave Stolarsky. Once the drugs have worn off and the night is wrapping up, it’s evident to Bruno that what matters is that after the games, Tira will still be with Stolarsky and Bruno will still be alone – worse than alone; his only companion will be Falk. This sad realization is what pushes him, unknowingly, to start shedding his present skin, beginning by letting Stolarsky win those games. As I read the story, of course.

  20. David September 3, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    “Once the drugs have worn off and the night is wrapping up, it’s evident to Bruno that what matters is that after the games, Tira will still be with Stolarsky and Bruno will still be alone – worse than alone; his only companion will be Falk. This sad realization is what pushes him, unknowingly, to start shedding his present skin, beginning by letting Stolarsky win those games.”

    I don’t see any of that in the end of the story. The way he gets along with the other woman suggests he is at no shortage for female companionship (and remember Tira is only with Stolarsky because he has money – it’s not love). But I do agree it would have been a much much better story if that had been in there.

  21. Joe September 3, 2016 at 7:53 pm

    I’m out right now, so can’t respond longer till later, but two things. Eric was right…i mistyped…also, I’m faulting this as a story because it is, in fact, not a story — it is an excerpt….thus a diff animal…but it still is terrible as a snapshot of a longer piece. We cannot let mediocrity go unchallenged in journals of supposed record…it is our duty to history to illuminate the clunkers lest readers down the line think were numbskulls.

  22. Joe September 3, 2016 at 7:54 pm

    ***think we were numbskulls

  23. Ken September 6, 2016 at 4:06 am

    I liked this. I found this far superior as genre fiction to McGuane’s because it was far more focused and I thought it did give enough hints at Bruno’s character (and rather elegantly threw in back story whereas McGuane clunkily constructed a “yarn” out of contrivances) to satisfy as more than genre fiction, yet I enjoyed it as a suspenseful, adventurous story. I have no knowledge of Singapore so can’t comment on the verisimilitude. I also thought it was very well written. I have to agree, though, about excerpts. I was totally enjoying this and then–bang–it just ended. By the way, those criticizing Lethem should not do so with such certainty unless they’ve read his masterpiece The Fortress of Solitude. If they read that and feel like throwing stones then fair enough.

  24. Ken September 6, 2016 at 4:11 am

    Another point–Lethem is very chameleonic. This is nothing like the two novels and many stories of his I’ve read or his non-fiction. He seems to be occupying a sort of adventure story genre mode. I thought a bit of Paul Theroux and of the Flashman series even though I’ve not actually read them.

  25. Greg September 13, 2016 at 12:18 am

    I really enjoyed this 25 comment discussion; especially the back-and-forth between Roger and David. For example, you both made me think long and hard as to why Bruno avoided eye contact with Tira at the end. And Avataram, you are definitely on to something with the Jonathans – Jonathan Franzen in his last two novels has made fun of all the Jonathans in literature! Lastly, I return to Roger and his very helpful advice which I will definitely follow when reading literature:

    “Right there on the page, but something a reader might miss if he is preoccupied with anger against the New Yorker, Lethem’s prestige, etc.”

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