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March 24, 2005

Review: Gun, with Occasional Music

Gun, with Occasional Music

Before he went on some sort of superhero binge, Lethem wrote noir fiction. And before that, apparently, he wrote science fiction noir, in the form of Gun, with Occasional Music.

This is the sort of off-kilter novel that is an easy read, constantly engaging, really fun, and entirely forgettable. I really liked the Chinatown, Chandler flavor -- tied together with the dystopian future of a book like Blood Music, for example. The pacing is marvelous, the plotting a little spotty (or at least, a bit hard to follow and/or swallow at times), the characters fit neatly into their archetypes (albeit with the science fiction twist of some of them being "evolved" animals, but in this case it just personifies animals, rather than gangsters being portrayed as animals, a neat twist).

The story deals with the Karma police nabbing the wrong man -- in the future, your current Karma rating is what keeps you from getting put into deep-freeze, which is sort of a futuristic punishment; our hero, former Inquistor himself, now private, bets his own Karma to save him. In this future, everyone uses their own special blend of a mix of different drugs, with names like Forgettol, Addictol, and the like. The world is strange and getting stranger. Drop in some fast-grown children called babyheads, a nasty slave trade, and an even tougher form of drug and you have quite an eclectic mix of... um, weird science fiction elements that Lethem manages to weave into a pretty good hard-boiled detective novel, while a little too kooky to work entirely as a science fiction novel.

This was Lethem's first novel. I've since read his latest short stories (Men and Cartoons), his more traditional noir novel (Motherless Brooklyn¹), and have plans to soon read what is apparently his magnum opus, Fortress of Solitude. His first novel is worth your time, especially if you're a fan.

¹If one can describe a noir novel which has a Tourette's Syndrome sufferer as its protagonist as a traditional noir novel.

Posted by Brett Douville at March 24, 2005 07:57 PM


You know how when you start reading a new author you usually read their best book first, and everything else is downhill from there? I was lucky that this was my first Lethem, and then I read Motherless Brooklyn, and then I read Solitude...but that one's going to be tough to beat.

I don't know if it's entirely forgettable. I'm still reminded of ideas from this book - the gender switching thing, the babyheads...

Posted by: Jamie at March 24, 2005 09:14 PM

Sure, but the gender-switching thing (which I had forgotten until you mention it) is ill-formed because it's never completely resolved. The babyheads thing is a little more mentally sticky, but I give it a month before I figure it's gone forever.

Posted by: Brett Douville at March 24, 2005 09:43 PM