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Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Review by Ernest Lilley
Harcourt Brace Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0151364583
Date: March 1994 List Price $19.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Author's Website / Show Official Info /

It's funny that it took me till now, almost twenty years after Lethem's debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music was published, to get around to reading it, but looking over books I've read and books I haven't it caught my eye, and not for the first time. So I picked up a used copy on Amazon for about a buck, or a few more with postage thrown in, and shortly thereafter a padded manila envelope with a slightly beat up library copy hardcover showed up in my mailbox. Slightly beat up and covered in library plastic is perfect for this book, and my biggest issues with it is whether to put it in with the science fiction, or over with the P.I. novels. The problem is that while Jonathan Lethem crossed the streams with this noir/SF detective novel set in near future Oakland, CA, a few years past at this writing, he turned out a novel that either genre should be proud to call its own.

Gun, with Occasional Music. What does that even mean? Well, like a lot of things in art, it's not so much what it means as how it messes with your mind when you think about it. There actually is a gun that occasionally plays music somewhere in the book, but that's only marginally relevant.

Conrad Metcalf, is the quintessential noir PI, living in a near future, or one that was near enough in 1994 when the book came out, that feels like Raymond Chandler's LA, despite the odd cultural shifts of a society where asking questions isn't rude, it's something you need a license to do, and to get a license you need to be (or have been) an Inquisitor for the Office, which is to say, a cop. Text isn't legal either, and facts are quietly being replaced with abstractions and the written and spoken word have been pushed off the page by pictures and Muzak. Evolved animal human hybrids walk and talk like humans are the new lower class, and if you'd place infants in the animal kingdom and made hybrids of that you'd come up with something that talks tough and drinks hard, and which Lethem calls a baby-head.

If all that sounds like a world where you're better off forgetting that times were ever different, you're in luck, because the drugs are free from the state, and the use of Forgetol is on the rise. It's a time where you'd better stay in line, or have your karma points taken off your card, and if they go too low you'll wind up in the big freezer.

Metcalf wakes to the (musical) news that a Doctor he'd been on a case for has been murdered, and pretty soon he winds up with a client who claims he's being framed for the it. Orton Angwine's karma card is down to zero points, and the PI knows he's talking to a walking corpse, or at least a Popsicle in the making, so he throws him out, which was a smart thing to do. Then he has an attack of conscience, and decides to look into the case anyway, which isn't nearly as smart.

The victim, Maynard Stanhope, had hired Metcalf, to check up on his wife, who had a habit of disappearing on him, and whom he thought was sleeping around. Conrad had no trouble with tailing her, and maybe even sidling up to her at a bar to see if she'd bite, but when his client asked him to rough her up and tell her to go home he drew the line. It was probably that inconvenient conscience that got him booted out of the Office in the first place, and it's nowhere near done causing him trouble.

So he starts digging to find who the real killer was, or why Angwine's being framed, or why the Inquisitors want him off the case so badly. The doc's wife is a drop dead gorgeous blond who packs her own kind of heat and knows how to use it, but she doesn't give our boy a warm feeling about the case. The old doc that had brought the dead man into his practice looking for someone to turn it over too seems plenty nervous, but does he look like a killer? And why does everybody keep mentioning Danny Phoneblum before deciding they’d never heard of him, and recommending the same for you? Then there's Joey Castle, the Kangaroo in a dinner jacket who keeps leaning on Metcalf and who no doubt owes his existence to a line from Raymond Chandler's last novel, Playback (1958), which is quoted at the book's beginning.

“There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.”
There's a perfectly plotted noir murder mystery here, framed against a familiar backdrop redone in Orwellian pastels and some science fictional trimmings. The bio-punkish SF isn't especially hard SF, and though this book wends its way along the mean streets in trench coat and fedora, both the SF and PI elements exist to provide a framework for the author's takes on social themes. Knowledge is power, and the government isn't just failing to share it, it's providing the slippery slope to a uniform blankness of the unspotted minds of the public in the form of "make", free cocaine like drugs dispensed by its pharmacies. If Marx said "religion is the opium of the people", what do you give them when religion wears away? Real, or at least synthetic, opiates, it would seem. Here, everyone has their own special blend to make them feel like themselves, and our boy's has a lot of Acceptol in it, maybe mixed in with a little bit of Regretol. Most folks are big on Forgetol, which is the way the Office likes it.

The case follows the requisite number of twists and turns, the heat keeps leaning on Metcalf, and he keeps making people nervous by using a lot of punctuation in his sentences, especially question marks. He does get to fall in love, though problematically with an Inquisitor, or at least close enough to it to remember what love was like when it was something you could feel. He gets to follow a lot of leads and uncover a few more bodies, but in the end he winds up in the unenviable position of trying to fight city hall and an underworld crime boss at the same time, with the expected results. He may even get to solve the murder, though too late to save his client from being put in a cryogenic slammer for the crime, or maybe even to save himself. But he was already lost, and he knows it.

“The thing I wanted wasn't lost in the past at all, and it never had been. It was lost in the future. A self I should have been, but wasn't. A thread I'd let go of in myself, thinking I could live without it, not seeing what it meant.”
The star of the piece is Lethem’s writing. There are a lot of writers who've borrowed a page from Raymond Chandler, in and out of science fiction. Cyberpunk itself has been described SF gone noir, and this book, written a decade after cyberpunk hit the mean streets gracefully blends the two sensibilities, but with prose that rings with originality, though its lineage is clear.

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