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Noir, With Frequent Weirdness
on 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.