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HALL OF FAMEon July 28, 2003
"Gun, With Occasional Music" is my first Jonathan Lethem book, and it certainly won't be my last. Although reading just one of his books hardly ranks me as an expert on his career, I will say that this story about a private detective in a future, dystopian nightmare will probably be one of the most unusual experiences you'll ever have with a book (unless you make a habit of reading quirky, ultra bizarre fiction). Lethem must have been the product of a union between Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs, with genetic material donated by Dashiell Hammett and Aldous Huxley. That's the only way to describe this amazing blend of noir, science fiction, and political commentary. "Gun, With Occasional Music" is the type of book you introduce your friends to in order to see their reaction after they finish it.
Lethem's future is one in which I would not want to visit, let alone live in. For private investigator Conrad Metcalf, this nightmare is the only world he knows. What's so bad about this author's horrific visions? In the world of tomorrow, society is quite different from the world we know. For one thing, animals (rabbits, sheep, kangaroos, and cats) now walk upright, speak, commit crimes, and work. It's all a part of what authorities call "evolving," and it isn't just about the animals. Human infants take part in the hijinks as well, since society decided that it takes too long for people to grow up. The result is "babyheads," infants that speak, smoke, and drink thanks to massive infusions of growth hormones. As if that's not enough to cause you screaming fits, and apparently many of the people in this brave new world feel like screaming about it, the authorities provide "make," a drug used to modify behavior. Moreover, people can make their own blends of the drug, adding such great substances as forgettol so they don't have to remember their miserable existence. Those brave souls who wish to challenge the system, or the innocents just caught in police nets, face the dread terror of the inquisitors. This secret police directorate possesses the power to ask questions, arrest people, and carry out sentences that include freezing people for years in a sort of cryogenic state. Conrad Metcalf is a private inquisitor, a former member of the secret police who struck out on his own after his disillusionment with the system led to an early retirement.
Now Metcalf has another case, one that promises to be a real doozy. After a doctor turns up dead in a seedy motel room, a client named Orton Angwine turns up on Metcalf's doorstep. Angwine claims he had nothing to do with the murder, and he wants Metcalf to clear him from the looming cloud of suspicion. Metcalf's subsequent investigation leads him through a labyrinth of underworld types, corrupt doctors, a jilted wife, a cranky babyhead, a kangaroo with a grudge, and inquisitors who would rather see this case disappear forever. Whatever happens in the end, Metcalf must tread a fine line during his investigation because if his personal karma drops to zero he will find himself facing a six year snooze in a cryogenic tank. As Conrad homes in on the murderer, he discovers his noirish wisecracks bring more trouble than answers. The future is a dangerous place, and Conrad Metcalf is right in the middle of it without an umbrella.
You really must love the dialogue in this book. It crackles with snappy comebacks and hooked barbs, all done in a grand tradition which states that detectives in crime noir stories must speak in clever metaphors and insults. What makes it so jarring here is when Metcalf trades verbal jabs with a gun-toting kangaroo named Joey Castle. In "Gun, With Occasional Music," dialogue assumes an added dimension when you realize that the only people allowed to ask questions in the future are inquisitors, thus the reason that Conrad often frets over his inadequate responses when grilling someone for information. His stock and trade is not as a hired gun or bodyguard per se; it literally involves possessing the necessary verbal acumen to properly make inquiries and to look good while doing so. Lethem studied and mastered the style of the noir masters before writing this book, and it shows on virtually every page.
"Gun, With Occasional Music" is weirdness incarnate, but at the same time it is immensely amusing. The best recommendation I can give you is to pay close attention to the various characters Metcalf runs into during the course of his investigation. The twists and turns of the Angwine case are monumental, and easily lost track of amidst the strange scenery Lethem throws at you with unremitting frequency. This book really is one that requires a second reading because there is so much going on. The conclusion is an interesting one that wraps the plot up just as a good noir story should. Yep, all in all Lethem's little beast is a great way to spend a few days. For those unaccustomed to the joys of warped fiction, Jonathan Lethem exists to show you the way.
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on February 27, 2000
After reading Letham's less-than-coherent "Amnesia Moon," I almost made the mistake of not reading him again, but a couple of reviews posted here convinced me otherwise. This book was magnificent: brilliant ideas and brilliant writing. I'm just surprised that I hadn't heard more about this author, because this work is far superior to most modern fiction I've read. Not being much of a genre fan myself, it was nice to see a hard-boiled detective story in a sci-fi (though entirely conceivable sci-fi) setting. Rich, developed characters (be they detectives, doctors, evolved apes or tiny mental giants) and a thick plot with no holes in the story to worry about. Be forwarned, its a real page-turner, and not something you want to pick up unless you've got a day or two free.
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on January 23, 2000
I read this book in one sitting, feeling like I had snorted a mixtue of Regrettol and Addictol, two of the many govenment-sponsored drugs made available for free to citizens of this future world. The narrator's personal blend of drugs was "skewed heavily towards Acceptol, with just a touch of Regrettol to provide that bittersweet edge, and enough addictol to keep me craving it even in my darkest moments." The blend he delivered to me, however, was light on the Acceptol.
This bittersweet story would be too depressing to recommend to anyone were it not for the humor, which had me laughing out loud. Metcalf and the kangaroo are worth reading again and again, but with little jokes like Testafer "Here's a tip, Grover. You're supposed to go first-" "Shut up." Well, I'd tried to warn him" I was reading dectective fiction as good as Chandler, to whom the book is inscribed.
This is some of the best fiction I've ever read and I recommend it highly.
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on August 2, 2001
I guess I hold a minority view here, I was somewhat disappointed by "Gun, With Occasional Music."
The "comic noir" angle seemed overplayed, and the "forced evolution" trick served no real purpose I could discern. All the audaciousness and bold experimentation we've come to expect from Lethem was here (in spades... Sam Spades) but unlike, say, "Girl In Landscape" or "The Wall of the Sky" in this book they just made it seem mannered and self-conscious.
Still a very entertaining read, and way beyond run-of-the-mill, but as someone who has written some of the most inventive current fiction, he has far outdone this book in later works.
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on March 16, 2000
"You got SF tropes in my hardboiled crime story!" "No, you got a detective story in my dystopian-future novel!"
As others have said, this book is excellent, and definitely worth the read (the style alone is worth the price of admission, even if you ultimately decide you didn't like the admittedly tough-to-favor story.) However, I feel compelled to interject that I thought its focus tended to waver. Most of the book was a detective novel; but there were several portions that abandoned that storyline entirely and just wandered off into worldbuilding. Indeed, this book would have been nearly the same if the often murkily-explained SF stuff had been removed entirely. (it took me a while to figure out exactly what a babyhead was, and I'm still unclear on why people thought it was a good idea to make so many of them.)
However, the SF portions of the story _do_ serve well to make the setting more bizarre, and separate from the real world--and that's what books are all about. I'd have just liked to see better integration between the setting and the plot.
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on March 17, 2013
What happens if you take the classic noir detective story and put it into an American future characterized by perverse pleasure? You get this novel.

First the positive. If you like a traditional tough-guy detective story told in the first person, this has got that. It's even set in the Bay Area and incorporates all of the necessary elements, damsels in distress, a seductress, tough guys jawing at one another, a morally flawed main character, etc. In fact, early on in the book I thought that I would rate it fairly high simply because Jonathan Lethem had done such a tremendous job of matching the trope. I was particularly taken with his deft touch on the snappy tough-guy repartee, if this were a movie there would be many quotable lines.

That said, I found it a little lacking at points. Frankly there were a few points where the book just lost my attention. These points seemed to be primarily where he left the main detective plot line and immersed the reader in world building. More importantly, I could never quite figure out how the world Lethem created served the story. For instance, you can expect the main character in this type of novel to hit the bottle or have an addiction, but everyone had an addiction and I'm still wondering how, other than occasionally making some people harder to question, that served the story. Another example of this was a series of genetically mutated animals. They were an interesting set of characters to play with and read about, but I can't say that I felt like they added depth to the plot in anyway, which I see as a strong negative in a murder mystery. There was also a backdrop of Karma Points, which when it was first introduced I thought was an interesting concept, but it just never seemed to go anywhere intriguing.

As I think this through, it seems to me that the writer must have wanted to write a noir detective story, which is cool. Then he decided to place the story in a really funky world and the problem is that the world doesn't end up facilitating the story, it came off to me as simply arbitrary.

Don't get me wrong because of the strong first-person narration and appropriate incorporation of the genre's tropes, it is an entertaining read. It just falls a little flat in the end. My official rating for this is 3.5 stars, but since most sites won't let you do half a star I'll click the three star button because I simply do not feel strongly enough about it to make it four stars.
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This is science fiction. But in the limited sense that it takes place in some near future, in which genetically enhanced animals work as domestic servants, and police, instead of giving tickets and prosecuting crime, deduct karma points from offenders' ID cards. More than what you might typically picture as sci-fi, this is a private eye story. (I kept thinking of Garrison Keillor's Guy Noir character: "A dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets but on the 12th floor of the Acme Building, one man is still trying to find the answers to life's persistent questions. Guy Noir, Private Eye." Cue the slow, jazzy sax theme.)

The best part of Gun is Lethem's picturesque phrases. (Come to think of it, these lines would fit well in a Guy Noir skit.) Every now and then there will be a memorable sentence or two that makes me smile. Some examples:

The clouds were still bunched up in the sky like a gang on a street corner, and it looked to me like they had the sun pretty effectively intimidated.

The case [which he was investigating] was like some kind of invasive malignancy. It filled whatever space it was given, and worse, blended itself into the healthy tissue so you didn't know where to make the cut. It had blended itself into my life.

It was the kind of neighborhood where you give your car a little involuntary glance back over your shoulder after you park it, and if you have any doubt whether you locked it, and doubt at all, you walk all the way back just to check.

I was stupid enough to think there was something wrong with the silence that had fallen like a gloved hand onto the bare throat of the city.

She [a potential client trying to seduce him] applied herself to the front of my body like a full-length decal, seeking points of pressure all the way up and down, and working them until they responded.

[After getting bashed on the head by his adversary's henchman] Then the floor peeled up in a curl to embrace the sides of my head, and the weave of the carpet spiraled up to tickle the inside of my nose.

Clever phrases and colorful language aside, there is a story here. But it wasn't one that enthralled me. This is one of those books that is somewhat enjoyable for the reading experience, but in terms of story, I was ready to get it over with. By the time the detective got around to figuring out who killed whom and why, I didn't really care. Suffice to say that the continual references to "make"--the government-provided blends of drugs with ingredients like addictol, forgetol, and acceptol--ends up not being simply a part of the background of Lethem's future America, but a crucial plot element.

I am sufficiently curious about Lethem's work that I might pick up another of his novels at some point. Fans of the dark, literary sci-fi of Philip Dick and his ilk might enjoy Gun, With Occasional Music, but Lethem's definitely an acquired taste.
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on September 9, 2000
This is a hard book to pin down. It begins as a strange but fun pastiche/satire of Dashiell Hammett in a science fictional vein. Specifically, the general atmosphere, penchant for tortured similes, and basic plot devices (private detective, etc.) are borrowed from Hammett, while the dystopic future is a variation on Orwell and Huxley. The plot turns that follow allow Lethem to show us how his near-future dystopia evolves over time, which eventually leads to an immesely satisfying ending (which, of course, I cannot explain without ruining the surprise).
Lethem's skill as a writer is evident in the fact that he manages to make a number of utterly absurd details seem real and consistent: "evolution therapy," a biotechnological advance that results in sentient kangaroos, kittens and sheep who make up a socially inferior caste in society, as well as in super-smart infants and toddlers who congregate in seedy "baby bars" to escape the unexplained side-effects of their condition; a narrator who sometime in the past had his sexual responses switched with an old girlfriend's, so that now, while possessing a functioning male apparatus, he experiences sex like a woman; government-sponsored "makes," drug mixes with which everyone is kept high and in the mental state they most desire; and on and on. I would hesitate to call Lethem a fully original writer, but at the same time, his imagination is impressive, and the future society he envisions is convincing. The Hammett satire is worth a few chuckles as well.
For a book that fails to reveal a single real weakness, I recommend this highly. It isn't great literature, but it's a worthwhile read.
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on May 31, 2015
This novel has two VERY gruesome, VERY bloody murders. I don't like this -- I know it happens (one of the murders could have used Sharon Tate as a model) but I don't want to know the gruesome bloody details. After all, I don't have to stick my head in a sewer pond to know that it's repulsive. However, I think the murders are motivated and not just thrown in for sensationalism so I am not taking off a star for them. I just think readers should be warned -- in terms of movies this would be an R, not a G.
What I am taking the star off for is that this is too derivative, sort of a mashup between Brave New World with more detail and Sam Spade. The novel comes complete with sci fi elements, a cynical, hardboiled private eye, a damsel in distress, and the titular guns. I like sci fi and noir and I enjoyed the book, and I think it is very well written, so in all honesty I had to give it four stars. The novel takes current trends and extends them all too realistically into our possible distopian, horrifying future -- in this sense it is in the tradition of the best science fiction.
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on September 8, 2002
How do you make an hard boiled Sci-fi story?Take a cynical but really golden-hearted (proportions of cynicism and goodness may vary) private-eye in less tan friendly terms whit the official cops,some client in deep [trouble] who's innocent,some big rich jaded family in murky liaison whit ruthless mobsters,some fascinating dangerous babe, some ghastly creep,and you have the hard-boiled part. For a Blade-runner-like scenario you have only to add an oppressive police-state regime, some creepy genetic extravaganza,
an overall gloomy athmosphere...and the cocktail is done. Lethem knows it. What he did'nt know when he wrote this book is how to keep the reader interested. Exasperated,I flew toward the solution of the rather messy story jaw fell to the floor,as I was literally flabbergasted. But I was not amused.
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