Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem

Harcourt Brace, 1994, 262 pages, C$28.00 hc, ISBN 0-15-136458-3

From the cover blurb: “Jonathan Lethem’s first novel is a science-fiction mystery. It’s funny. It’s not so funny.”

For once, an entirely truthful blurb. Gun, With Occasional Music is a novel in the hard-boiled mode: A lone private investigator, slowly piecing together clues of an intricate mystery, told from a suitably-tough first-person narration. Conrad Metcalf is Gun‘s narrator: a good guy, but with the traditional gamut of problems associated with the type: low-down, celibate, drug-user (with the blessing of the government), loser…

Which brings us to the science-fiction facet of the work: Gun takes place somewhere next century, in a wild world: Genetically-enhanced animals wander around like humans, (in fact, one of the book’s main characters is a young gun-toting gangster apprentice… a kangaroo) babies are force-grown, drug use is encouraged by the government, written-word newspapers are outlawed and guns play a musical theme.

Which brings us, in turn, to the “funny” part: Gun‘s future is much more satirical than realistic. (Fundamental biology dictates that the vocal equipment of, say, a sheep is woefully inadequate for speech.) But it doesn’t matter: This is closer to fable than hard-SF. Not nearly enough justification is brought forth, but that’s a flaw of Lethem in general. Even though, the atmosphere of the wacky world Conrad Metcalf lives in is deliciously textured. The reader, especially if familiar with the hard-boiled genre, will delight in the overall mood of the novel.

Which finally brings us to the darker side of Gun. The first three-quarters are -almost- jolly good fun: Metcalf’s narration is typical, the events described all fit in joyously with the sub-genre. Yet, a small lingering bad taste emerges. Metcalf’s world is funny, yes, but with unpleasant edges. Inquisitors? Karma points? Outlawed text in newspapers? Then Things Happen (to say any more would be an unforgivable spoiler) and Gun doesn’t seem so light-hearted any more. And what had been a light piece of escapist entertainment becomes something much more pernicious.

Surprisingly, this makes for a better book than an otherwise “all-happy” ending would have brought. The final few pages approach perfection… but personal tastes will differ considerably here.

High accolades for a first novel. Lethem’s style, as mentioned before, is delicious. The narration is funny and direct, yet tragic and parenthetical. Lethem’s protagonist feels like a real person, and the other supporting characters are also very well-drawn.

The cover of the Harcourt-Brace hardcover edition is also delightful: A deliberately-damaged cover “noir” illustration, and some great quotes on the back.

Some of the details are too vague, over-the-top or simply thrown away too rapidly to be fully appreciated. The ending will probably stain the book’s previous impact on some readers. Lethem goes for effect more than believability: There is no believable path from our present to his future. But readers who don’t figure that it’s not that kind of novel by the first few pages probably won’t enjoy the remainder of the book anyway.

Obviously, this book will appeal far more to fans of the sub-genre, but other readers should get excellent value for their money. Lethem’s first novel is unusually strong, and portents a promising future for this author. In any case, it’s definitely worth the paperback price.

(Briefly: Lethem’s second novel, Amnesia Moon, is far less compelling than Gun. Confusing, disjointed, metaphysical, it lacks the strong sustained plotting of the first novel. Disappointing, even for someone who’s enjoyed Lethem’s other works.)

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