"Don’t talk,” I said. “I know how it’ll come out… You’ll tell me the past is the past, that it isn’t worth it anymore. You’ll tell me idealism went out of style while I was away. You’ll mix your threats and enticements into a nice little cocktail and pour it down my ear. I know all about it."
"He looked like he’d taken a long fall a short time ago."
Once again, this is a novel that I selected purely for its debutante status. The first work by Jonathan Lethem, (who by all accounts is an excellent novelist, but whose work I have never read) Gun, with Occasional Music is touted on the back as being “a blend of hardboiled noir detective stories and sci-fi.” I defy you to walk past a novel promising you all of that, and a talking kangaroo.
When Gun opened, I was initially a little skeptical, because the style seemed so genre-driven and the prose came across almost as contrived. However, once the intrigue of ‘hey, this world isn’t all it seems!’ kicked in, I was absolutely hooked. I began to totally buy the idea of Metcalf as the hard-living, miserable, cynical detective nursing a broken heart and even more broken sex drive.
As detective stories go, it is superficially a whodunit in which the (apparently) morally bankrupt but (actually) super-brave P.I. champions the cause of an innocent man being framed by the police for murder. Naturally, it gets tangled and ends up involving a talking kangaroo hit man, a corrupt doctor, and a big, fat crime boss with a vested interest in a hot, self-destructive woman. I’m sure you’re on board at this point; doesn’t that sound great? And all of that is incredibly well-handled, and fun; the mystery itself is almost interesting enough to stand alone.
The great thing about Gun, though, is that very little in the text was left to stand alone. There is nothing I enjoy more than an author who throws you into the deep end of a world, assumes you know all about it, and lets you spend the rest of the book establishing the nuances of how this world differs from ours. I love that. Not only does it avoid all those tedious pages of descriptions and historical backstory that I just don’t care about, but it gives me more to think about and, in this case, adds some very real depth to what would otherwise be a clever, but fairly simple, noir crime thriller.
Lethem has taken some Orwell and given the government complete control of the media (no text allowed, books and the written word banned) and blended in a bit of Huxley-ish apathy of the masses, making asking questions the absolute height of rudeness. Gun also features a government that has skipped religion entirely and started feeding the masses opiates straight up, with drugs (called ‘make’) being cheap, legal, and personalised to give you just the right amount of forgetfulness, addiction, avoidance, and denial.
Blending such a bleak image of the future, (in which animals given “evolution treatment” enabling them to speak and perform tasks, form the underclass, personalised identity cards have ‘karma’ balances that can be fined by the Inquisitors, and the only news available is either in images or a “musical interpretation,”) with such a fun, enjoyable, genre detective story, is ingenious. The book is bleakly comic, drives you to read on, captures the imagination, and keeps you guessing on several levels.
Character development (aside from Metcalf, the protagonist) is not the strength of this novel – possibly because the other characters all seem to die on a regular basis – but the characters themselves are enjoyable and well-drawn. None of the characters are particularly likeable or in possession of many redeemable traits, in fact, the single most likeable character is without doubt an evolved sheep. This is interesting, because most of the cast appears to have devolved into sheep themselves, but not become any nicer with it. Metcalf’s great charm is that you can see he has a conscience, and you have to respect the honesty of his own self-loathing. The constant downward progress of each character, particularly the protagonist, should probably be depressing; but rather, it is wryly amusing watching as the base nature of each character comes out to play.
The wind-up is anti-climactic, even given the violence of the closing scene, because the world has become so unliveable it is hard to imagine Metcalf’s pursuit of justice is anything other than utterly futile. While the murder mystery element of the story ties itself neatly up with all the answers, there is no answer to the greater questions and thematic concerns of the novel; this case is solved, but now Metcalf must try to live in this hopeless dystopia. The slight break in the book, between parts one and two, is a clever little structural device and leaves the reader feeling as disoriented and dissatisfied with the world as Metcalf himself.
Gun gets its message across beautifully, with humour, wit, and class. As debuts go, it is brilliant, and definitely makes me want to seek out some of Lethem’s later stuff. As genre-driven, noir-novel fiction, it is highly successful, and as dystopian commentary on society, it is alarmingly convincing, and leaves you no indication that one washed-up P.I. can make any difference whatsoever. It neatly closes one case, and leaves the larger one, the one of how such cases come to be in the first place, open for the reader to deal with. Good luck.
"For Celeste, I knew as surely as our hips had ground together, danger was the intoxicant, and if there wasn’t danger there would have to be something else, some other malign aphrodisiac. I wanted to hit her as much as I wanted to fuck her, and she probably wanted to be hit as much as she wanted anything."
"The gist of the story was that our noble inquisitors were on the job again, righting wrongs. It was a gross oversimplification. A murder didn’t happen in a void, like some sort of hiccough. It was the outcome of an inexorable series of past events climaxing in the act, and with repercussions stretching into the future far beyond the usual inquisition. I listened to myself thinking this way and had to laugh. A murder was a garage sale. A murder was a stag party. A murder was a fire drill. A murder was whatever the Inquisitor’s Office wanted it to be."
Is Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem. You’ll like this if you like genre novels, crime novels, sci-fi, and talking animals.
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