Friday, February 20, 2009

“The detective…A dangerous and impulsive man.”

In Gun, With Occasional Music, author Jonathan Lethem marries hard-boiled pulp noir with dystopian sci-fi satire. Imagine if Jim Thompson wrote Brave New World (or if Aldous Huxley wrote The Killer Inside Me). I feel like a Philip K. Dick comparison would be particularly apt here, but I've never read any Dick, so I'm not going to make that comparison. But I feel like it's at least in the ball park.

Gun, With Occasional Music follows the misadventures of a private investigator named Conrad Metcalf, who has been hired by a murder suspect to clear his name. The victim? Metcalf's last client, the rich and successful urologist Maynard Stanhunt. Metcalf navigates a near-future Oakland, populated by gangsters, molls, crooked Inquisitors (i.e. the police), and evolved animals (including a particularly aggressive kangaroo mob enforcer named Joey). As the case progresses, Metcalf finds himself in a tangled web obsession, drugs, and violence that threatens to be his undoing in any number of fashions.

There are two things about Gun, With Occasional Music that are immediately striking. First is Lethem's prose, aping old hard-boiled dime store noir. Second is the near-future world he creates, a twisted take on a future recalling Brave New World that is both funnier and more horrifying than anything in Huxley's classic.

Lethem's prose is all hard-boiled dime novel. For instance, opening to a random page I find: "When the door closed, he turned to me and his eyes lit up for a second, and he came towards me with a fist coiled up at his waist, and smashed me right in the middle of the stomach. It was the closest thing to language that had passed between us. I guess I should have been grateful to the guy for opening himself up to me like that." To be perfectly honest, the overly self-conscious dime novel prose was distracting at first, but soon I gave myself over to the fun Lethem was having playing with pulp conventions. The prose is undoubtedly cool, and Lethem both buys into that cool and subverts it. One of the best running bits throughout the book is Metcalf's penchant for metaphor. Depending on how on top of his game he is at a given moment, Metcalf's metaphors drip with pulp cool or completely fall flat. This reoccurring bit sums up why Lethem's noir writing works, it can drip with cool, it can be silly, but it's always fun and always amazing.

Lethem's portrait of a near future Bay Area will be broadly familiar to anyone who's read any dystopian literature, but the particulars of his vision can be both haunting and hilarious. The closest predecessor to Lethem's dystopia would have to be the aforementioned Brave New World. In Lethem's future, everyone is on "make," a psychologically deadening class of drugs that include Acceptol, Avoidol, Forgettol, and similar variants. Politeness has been taken to such extremes that asking questions requires a license and any improprieties are punishable by law, specifically by reducing an individual's state-monitored "karma" (a sort of social currency). Nerve-swapping is both funny and more than a little unsettling. The evolution of the news media is so bizarre and amazing that describing it here wouldn't do it justice. I almost laughed out loud when I reached the moment where the title comes from.

And, of course, there is evolution. Animals can be scientifically "evolved," giving them the mental capacity of humans, leading to everything from child-surrogates, sex slaves, and the occasional kangaroo mob enforcer. The most horrifying aspect of Lethem's future, though, has to be the baby-heads. Baby-heads are infants that have gone through the same forced evolution as the animals, leading to a subculture of drug-addled, cynical, alcoholic infants who speak in surreal nonsense and riddles. Metcalf's trip to a baby-head bar is far and away the most memorable moment in the book, a cross between a crack house, an opium den, a flop house, and a dive bar, populated entirely by talking infants.

Gun, With Occasional Music is a quick, wonderful read. It is funny, scary, engrossing, confusing, and above all, entertaining. I would recommend it to anyone who likes detective stories, science fiction, satire, or simply good books.

1 comment:

Brad said...

It holds up under repeated readings, as well, which is one indicator of what I think a good, solid book actually is, rather than an enjoyable book.