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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Conrad + 1 century: Lethem's Singapre story

Not enough to go on in the current New Yorker short fiction, A Gentleman's Game, by Jonathan Lethem, obviously an excerpt from his forthcoming novel - the piece involves three American guys whose paths cross in an upscale, private casino in Singapore; the main character, Bruno, is a pro gambler, and he spots an old high-school acquaintance wandering into the den, looking very un-hip and out of place. The story concerns their re-connecting, an awkward fashion - the uncool guy turns out to be pretty wealthy - so we're set up for a story in which he'll be an easy mark for the pro gambler. In the background, Bruno's con-artist partner, Falk, another American drifter whose role, it seems, is to set up big gambling opportunities. Bruno's game of choice is cribbage - who knew? The piece ends, sort of, with a big match between Bruno and an Asian investor. So the problem with this excerpt is that there's not much atmosphere, and not much action. You expect that Lethem will show us these big matches, will build some tension - as Ian Fleming could do, to site a major influence on the genre and on this story - but most of the story concerns drinking, a tour of Singapore (mostly, hotel bars - boring), and back story - none of it enough to make any of these characters memorable or distinct (from one another, or from anyone else for that matter). The idea I suppose is that this is the non-Bond Bond - a bunch of ordinary schmoes for whom gambling is an occupation, not a romance or diversion - and a Conrad + 1 century: these are the European drifters in SE Asia that Conrad romanticized (and comprehended) in any # of novels or stories, most notably Lord Jim and Victory, I guess. They're no longer romantic, and they might as well be anywhere - Singapore, in this excerpt anyway, could be Tokyo or for that matter Los Angeles. I'd have to read more to really know but these seem to be people Lethem knows from his reading, not from his life.

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