Hard Boiled Science Fiction is Good For You: Gun, with Occasional Music

gun_with_occasional_music.largeGun, with Occasional Music is an amazing book. A friend recommended it for the science fiction category but I slipped it on under the detective fiction category instead. This is because the novel is, primarily, a hard-boiled detective novel set in a not-so distant future. Conrad Metcalf, said detective, attempts to unravel the murder of a former client of his for a soon-to-be dead (actually, frozen in this novel because it is more economical and easier to manage for the government) man. The novel circles outward from this premise and I was drawn into Lethem’s strange and compelling world.

While the novel’s present is not significantly different from the world as we know it today, there are a number of changes worth noting. One is that most people are addicted to make – a catch-all name for various blends of drugs with catchy names like Forgettol, Addictol, and Blanketrol. Metcalf is addicted and constantly needs to snort a line or two to get his thoughts moving. A second change is the cultural move into a strange form of individualism. No one asks questions anymore. Only the police, the Office Inquisitors as Lethem calls them, or PIs (Private inquisitors) are able to do this. So, Metcalf’s investigation is a strange one in that questions become a loaded issue when talking with people. A third change is the inclusion of animal characters. Dr. Twostrand’s evolution therapy, initially meant to speed up childhood because it took too long, also allows animals to become speaking and sentient beings. Metcalf is followed and harassed by one kangaroo, a dangerous character who becomes a central suspect in the novel’s mystery. The therapy does not work so well on children as it creates dwarf-sized bodies with the minds of two year olds, many of whom congregate in shady bars drinking and talking in their own gibberish.

What I liked most about Lethem’s novel was his ability to breathe new life into detective fiction for me. This genre is riddled with conventions that authors need to follow in order to guarantee a readership. However, Lethem is able to play with this by introducing speculative fiction into the hard-boiled detective narrative. While he stays close enough to convention, Gun, with Occassional Music is its own thing. It mixes intrigue and mystery with science fiction delight and black humor. Metcalf is incisive and darkly funny in his commentary on the novel’s culture and the other characters. The hybrid mixing of genres is what got Lethem noticed in the first place. His next few novels (Amnesia MoonAs She Climbed Across the Table, and Girl in Landscape) continue with the genre blending. I am hoping to read some of these next year and I’m wondering if Lethem is my new David Mitchell. After reading Cloud Atlas last year, I promptly picked up number9dream and  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I’m still hoping to read his Ghostwritten.

I highly recommend Gun, with Occasional Music for anyone who likes to read. Read it now!

Lethem, Jonathan. Gun, with Occasional Music. New York: Harcourt, 1994. Print.


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