Jonathan Lethem – The Blot

It’s not often that I come across a novel that squanders its potential so much as The Blot. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. This novel has so many fantastic elements to it – the first two thirds or so had me hooked – and yet some head-scratchingly bad ones too. What should have been a great novel about a professional gambler’s struggle with identity is instead bogged down with under-baked subplots and strange shifts in focus.

Alexander Bruno is a professional gambler with pretty much nothing to his name but a suit and a backgammon board. He meets with wealthy clients all over the world, playing them and trying to take their money. However, his world is torn apart when he discovers that he has a tumour in his brain. In order to have any chance of living, Alexander is forced to get in contact with an old associate who he had no plans of ever seeing again…

This plotline carries the book along quite nicely for the first couple hundred of pages, moving languidly yet remaining compelling. Jonathan Lethem does a great job of developing Alexander as a character, offering the reader fantastic scene after fantastic scene, slowly revealing him to be a broken man who tries to hide behind a suave persona. The drawn-out scene in which Alexander meets a German client for a game of backgammon is particularly fantastic. Credit to Lethem, he does an incredible job of making the reader invested in the backgammon game of a character they’ve only just met.

And the story continues to be great even when it moves past its gambling focus (which is abruptly abandoned) and onto Alexander’s illness. We see him rekindle a relationship with a wealthy old school friend in an attempt to use him to pay for the surgery he needs to save his life. The relationship between these two characters is easily one of my favourite aspects of the novel. The power dynamic between the two of them is an interesting one and something that I wish the author would’ve explored more.

And Lethem’s seeming refusal to explore the story’s most interesting elements more fully ties directly to my issues with The Blot. About halfway through the novel it becomes incredibly clear that he made it up as he went along, causing the whole thing to, well, go off the rails pretty majorly.

There are so many problems with the novel’s second half that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start by getting the novel’s weirdest aspect out of the way: the protagonist has mind reading abilities. Right, okay. That could be interesting, but the way that Lethem explores it is totally baffling, with it conflicting majorly with the overall tone of the novel. We only see Alexander read minds a couple of times in The Blot, it never ties into anything or gets resolved and it always feels like it’s in the background of the story. It feels completely unnecessary, almost existing in its own bubble in the novel, only receiving a few stray mentions. Why bother with it?

The novel’s other major problem is that Lethem just throws too many plotlines at the wall in the last 100 pages or so, clogging the story up with uninteresting details and stealing away time we could be spending with one of the more interesting plotlines. Our protagonist gets a goofy pop-culture-reference dropping sidekick, he’s given a new love interest (a woman who appears previously in the novel for about five pages right at the beginning), he becomes a political activist of sorts, he gets a job at a burger restaurant… All within the last 100 pages. And as you can guess the result is a jumbled mess.

By the end, the novel’s interesting aspects are all but gone and The Blot just becomes a massive chore to read. It’s a real shame, and it makes me wonder why someone didn’t step in and tell Lethem that he was running a potentially incredible novel into the ground for no reason at all.

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