"Hell is too crowded," a gang of demons informs the hero of Robert Irwin's Wonders Will Never Cease: "So we have come to live with you." "Be kind to me," begs the protagonist of Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy, speaking to a native of California, "I'm not from this planet." Both of these quotes, excerpted as they are from tales out of the fantastika toolkit, describe how it feels to stay alive here. Together they say our home is haunted and not in fact our home no more no more.
It is an obvious thing to say, but should perhaps be said anyway: that linear narratives set in such a world as ours, where it is increasingly hard to gain much sense that we are going to end our trip in safe harbour, are unlikely to end on a note of joy. The inherent built world of some contemporary story we wish to read for its import will almost certainly ask us to negotiate with the surety that endings do not lift us. Closure in any fiction worth sustained attention in this era is a form of wit: waving becomes wavium. Certainly neither of the novels just mentioned cement any haven into place before time, circular or sung, calls a halt. Despite gestures of conclusion, they are both tales drowning in rough seas: they both give off a sense that the world itself, which is the fourth wall of fantastika, is all that remains after the last word (as Alexandre Dumas did not entirely say, the world is the cemetery of the Chateau of If). Robert Irwin's Wonders Will Never Cease is, as usual with this ex-juggler, slyly dead serious about the prodrome figurines it displays goldenly, and though it ends with a foretold death, certainly everyone in the tale knows they are being told, and that (I think) their safe harbour is to be sung in a tale that is meant to be resung. Jonathan Lethem's A Gambler's Anatomy—as usual with this author, excepting of course the Tourette-shaken Motherlesss Brooklyn—skates grimacelessly on sharpened blades over thin ice, with no safe berg or floe in the offing. And Lethem (I think) only pretends along classical twentieth-century lines that to obliterate his utterand's name on the final page is to terminate him: to blot him out.
In backgammon, a game that the protagonist of Lethem's new seemingly crazy-quilt tale makes his living at, a blot can be simply defined as a solitary checker that the opposing player can make Disappear from the complex board, which is shaped like the jaws of a shark. But backgammon does not seem (to a non-player whose meagre knowledge of its rules has been extracted from this novel) to be a game easily defined in terms of simple toggles (like wiping or not wiping out a blot). It seems to be, perhaps uniquely, a game where nothing can be hidden but whose transitions and uncoverings, governed as they are by throws of the dice, are cloaked in abysses of unknowing. It is like the warp and weave of a story you cannot quite hear but which is telling you. It is not a game that safely models any kind of terminus.
In the final words of Lethem's tale, the protagonist's name, which he was born with and has been using, seems to have been blotted into "words for one who no longer existed," a very chesslike plunge into absolute zero (c.f. any chess novel one can think of, including Nabokov's). But this phrase jokingly scumbles over a significant and welcome hedging in A Gambler's Anatomy of the tropic modernist equation of terminus and nada: because, in a manner simultaneously cartoonish and genuinely subtle, Lethem's latest gaming with the apercus of genre can clearly be read as an iteration of the Superhero Origin Story. The name "Alexander Bruno" turns out at the end not to be "words for one who no longer existed," but the unuttered (and maybe unutterable) secret identity of a masked figure never actually called Dr Backgammon or simply Gammon!, who—freed of his mundane name—becomes his own Secret Master: comes to his full telepathic prowess through a prolonged act of surgery (see below), and who will continue to use his telepathic powers to fleece high-roller one-percenter backgammon players for extremely high stakes.
The Blot: A Supplement, which is a series of epistolary exchanges between Lethem and the culture theorist Lawrence A Rickels, draws down a sophisticated array of approaches to the blot perplex—the UK edition has been retitled The Blot—as a defamiliarizer device, evoking en passant figures from Philip K Dick to Thomas Mann; but we can and should begin A Gambler's Anatomy as though it was describing a literal world. The blot that assaults Bruno as the tale begins is not a metaphor for Unevenly Distributed Ontology Dysfunction but a growth or pressure that blocks the vision in his left eye in a way very clearly (though here not explicitly) similar to the impact of macular degeneration on its sufferers: the centre of one's vision is progressively blotted out, so that what can be seen of the world seems hydrocephalously to orbit an absence. What Bruno fails to understand about this blot, and his thinskinned deadpan endurance of the consequences of his exceedingly slow discovery of the motor of his life, is what tosses the tale back and forth through time and geography.
The blot has forced itself into the forefront of his passive-seeming mind in Berlin. He takes a ferry to a mysterious island, effectively costumed in his inevitable tuxedo. En route a woman named Madchen—perhaps impelled by Bruno's seemingly hypnotic attractiveness to women—helps him search for a cuff link he has dropped. He asks to see her sometime. She is mysterious. He lands, goes to the mansion where he is due to play backgammon privately with a man of great wealth, from whom he expects to extract thousands of euros. But he loses. His recent string of bad luck has continued. A veiled prostitute, who we eventually learn is Madchen, is in attendance. Bruno collapses, is hospitalized and told he is fatally ill due to an inoperable meningioma tumour which, though benign, is growing and will soon blot out not only his vision but his brain too. His only hope may be a radical San Francisco brain surgeon named Noah Behringer, who is very expensive.
Bait and switch into backstory: a few months earlier, we are in Singapore, where Bruno, agented by his weasely manager, is working his usual patch, using what he casually thinks of as his telepathic powers to shape the backgammon matches he usually wins. But his luck is changing. He half-notes the beginnings of the blot. But he is beginning to lose the power to read the narratological shape (and maybe some explicit verbal content) of minds of others at work: his gift of telepathy has allowed him to operate as a story-dowser, and a story-shaper, a spelunker in the Water Margins of the thinking/feeling self. He hardly allows himself to contemplate the cost of losing this power, and even, at moments, seems, unlike the protagonist of Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside (1973), to welcome some lessening of his only partially filtered apprehension of the noise humans make inside their heads. He encounters the weird slovenly domineering Keith Stolarsky, a childhood friend or hanger-on, now enormously wealthy, who will eventually finance his trip to California. Figures appear and disappear, as they do throughout A Gambler's Anatomy: which is either a mark of incompetence (as I think an early reviewer assumed), or the secret of the book.
We flash-forward to the Moronic Inferno of contemporary Berkeley, which irradiates Bruno until the long dégringolading of America into trash post-modernity starts to come out his ears. The fifty-year-old Bruno had (like Lethem himself) spent formative years in Berkeley, and had had no intention of returning; as a consequence, Berkeley itself is asked to bear a lot of old luggage, and maybe isn't quite up to the task of acting as stand-in for the American Apocalypse; and Lethem may have overestimated its load-bearing capacity. The novel certainly lingers here for a while, but then we come to the virtuoso heart of the book, an exquisitely detailed narrative description, from his Point Of View, of Dr Behringer's radical procedure, which involves first the removal of Bruno's face in order to expose the tumour, and then the slow complex procedure of flensing down the invasive mass as much as possible (operations on tumours which have insinuated themselves into the spine can never do more than remove significant portions of those tumours, as it is not yet medically possible—Lethem is up to date on this—to disentangle marriages of tumour and nerve at the microscopical level). Behringer listens to music as he works, and creates internal psychodramas which shape his narrative of the long process. Finally the face is sewn back on, as best as can be expected. We are relieved that the palpably bruisable though inarticulate Bruno is not awake to experience any of this.
We then find out different. Some sort of blot has been with Bruno for decades, and it is this blot that has served to reduce the world-noise he had suffered from, particularly as a child, leaving him with sufficient power to echolocate himself in the Water Margins, to game his backgammon prowess, to live a charmed life. When the blot—the meningioma—begins to grow, however, he loses the world. Behringer opens the floodgates. Bruno does not have to be conscious, exactly, to occupy Behringer's POV, to tell him what music he's been listening to and what internal drama he has been using to pace his procedure, and by only semi-miraculous extension to own the world occupied by the book we are reading; and ultimately he knows everything we as readers can come to understand. There is no ending to the book, which suits our sense that we no longer have a sense of ending for the world itself.
After the surgery, Bruno has taken to wearing a veil. And after a somewhat contrived disaster involving Madchen and others, the ultimately sadistic Stolarsky disappears as though yanked offstage once his role as a grotesque temptor imp of Satan has played out. Bruno is once again in Europe, reborn as Dr Backgammon, surfer of the Water Margins while tides rise above our heads. He is teflon for the things to come. He knows all there is to know about the deboning to come. There is nothing he can tell us. Would there were.
Wonders Will Never Cease gives us something like a song out of a prior world, a world that can be sung, a world washed in hieroglyphics like notes in music. It washes the "hurling" world by singing the notes of it. The tale is set in fifteenth century Britain, during the War of the Roses. Everything Robert Irwin tells us that might be historical is indeed historical. His hero, Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, 1422-1483, is a real figure, a reluctant polymath, a brawler, a man of self-destructive pride, brighter than is expected of him, less bright than he needs to be. Through dozens of sequences all told in the narrative present, his life is interwoven into the lives of friends, enemies, servants, lovers, all of whom seem to be "real," in the sense that they are historically verifiable, which does go some way. They may be way more highly-coloured than life as we understand life, but we have somehow become too accustomed to print history to note the sheer visibility of being alive as they understood it, these figures whose outlines pace the liquid frieze of told history, illuminating the actors in the long war, the various aceldamas where guts leak into poisoned grass, the internecine savageries between York and Lancashire that no sane reader is going exactly to recollect all the details of (though Robert Irwin clearly grasps the whole blood-seamed tapestry in his mind). Almost all of the minor figures are as mundanely verifiable as well: William Caxton, whose introduction of the printing press would as surely end this song as the musket in Seven Samurai; Sir Thomas Malory, at the cusp between song and said; George Ripley, teller of tall tales but true (believe it or not); the Fool Scoggin, even less funny than Shakespeare's.
The miracle of Wonders Will Never Cease is the wedding of all this vivid but essentially verifiable material with what one might tentatively identify as the stories that told the tales to those who lived them: the fables, legends, fleshed-out sententiæ, songs, all couched as though time were a shuttlecock. Every tale is as literally true as every other tale. The world is as it is seen. When a character sees something remarkable, he does not doubt what he has seen. What he notes is "what a wild, mad story he is in." There is no vision, seen or dreamed or recounted, that does not add to the truth. Every word Malory utters is the truth. When a (literal) Talking Head is asked about the future, and quotes a full paragraph from the end of H G Wells's The Time Machine, he is telling the truth.
It is of course a dream, but it manifests at the same time what Tom Disch called "the right way to figure plumbing." It utters on our behalf the loving falsehood that when humans tell each other something they colour it true. We do all hope to hear that song again.