Gun, with Occasional Music–Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem’s novel Gun, with Occasional Music blends hardboiled crime noir with trippy sci-fi to examine the ethical ramifications of murder in a dystopian future where evolved animals work along side humans, mind altering drugs are not only free but encouraged by the authorities, and asking questions requires a license. Conrad Metcalf is a Private Inquisitor trying to solve a murder case involving a urologist, a baby-head (a failed evolved baby), and a gun-wielding kangaroo.

Two of the blurbs for Lethem’s debut describe the work as a marriage of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, but for my taste their wasn’t enough PKD. The details involving the “make” that Metcalf compulsively snorts, the genetic evolution techniques society now uses to produce children, and the genital nerve-ending swaps that people now enjoy are never fully explored. Sometimes bizarre details left unexplained create the dramatic immersion that the best SF achieves; Gun seems to throw ideas up against a wall to see if any stick. Many of the SF tropes that Lethem evokes are simply under-utilized. His ideas are playful, so why doesn’t he play with them more?

On the noir, end, the book also disappoints a little. The case is solved, but Metcalf’s solution–delivered entirely in a brief chapter crammed with exposition–seems hardly believable, or even really that interesting. This isn’t to suggest that Lethem’s/Conrad’s Chandlerisms aren’t enjoyable, and at times downright genius. Even when Lethem cranks out a clunker of a simile–and there’s more than one here–the rhetoric comes across more as satire of the genre as opposed to bad writing. The book also moves at a nice clip, with short, snappy chapters that always propel the narrative action. Eventually though, it just runs out steam. The story doesn’t really add up, and towards the end, it becomes clear that Lethem’s not going to fill us in on all of the cool ideas he initiated. I recommend those new to Lethem start with Motherless Brooklyn or The Fortress of Solitude instead. Or Men and Cartoons. Or The Disappointment Artist. Avoid You Don’t Love Me Yet like the plague.

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