Gun, With Occasional Music

by Jonathan Lethem

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 1994
ISBN: 0-312-85878-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 262

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This is a remarkably strange book. It's a classic noir detective novel in plot, characterization, and voice, told in the first person by a drug-addicted protagonist who runs a private detective agency, is contracted to clear someone accused of murder, and who is constantly running afoul of both the cops and criminal bosses. The surface could have been taken straight out of any number of detective novels. But the story is told against a future background and social context that is unusual to say the least, and told with no exposition, apologies, or context. The reader is dropped into a world that initially seems similar to ours and left to deal with the differences as they become apparent. The familiar plot serves as a sort of life raft for the setting.

The first change one notices is that the news is instrumental. At first, it seems like this might be a metaphor (it wouldn't be out of place in the style), but it's the tip of an iceberg. This world is less curious than ours, through both legislation and social custom. It's apparently considered highly rude to ask people direct questions, and the protagonist has to have a license to do so. Only people with such a license and the police are permitted, and later in the book the change becomes even more drastic. It's a thought-provoking extrapolation, since at first it seems contrary to the current social trend, but it makes some sense as a backlash against the horrors of the world. If people can't cope with what's going on around them, shelter them by only giving them the news as instrumental emotions and create a social stigma against digging below the surface of the world.

The drugs are a more straightforward extrapolation. Nearly everyone is addicted to something rather like cocaine, except that the specific properties of the powders have been separated out and people create custom blends. It all has an addictol base, but you can get additives that do everything from make you feel good, sharpen your feelings, or even take away your memories of parts of your life or things that you don't want to deal with. The latter ties into the general incuriosity of the society and gives the feeling of people trying to run from reality, hide from the past, avoid questions, avoid knowing about the world, and escape life. Meanwhile, the protagonist is digging into people's dirt and trying to solve a murder that the police think they already have solved, thereby making everyone angry.

Then there's the karma system. This is apparently how law enforcement is mostly handled; everyone gets some number of karma points and can build them up by doing things that are considered social goods and lose them when the police feel like deducting them. Here, as in much of the book, the negative possibilities of this system are left implied rather than stated. It's clear that the police aren't exactly the good guys, and the hero has his karma messed with unjustly by the police several times without much recourse, but I didn't get a strong impression of what this meant for the larger society. It raises a question but doesn't answer it.

By comparison, the evolved animals are less subtle, more a recasting of the stock characters of a detective novel for a different setting. They form the underclass, the ones discriminated against, and occasionally the tough guys. (The same technology is used to create walking, intelligent infants, a bizarre and not horribly coherent subplot.) It's an interesting alienation trick to lay on top of a detective story, but it didn't go beyond that for me.

The background is the surreal star of the book. I've not said much about the plot, in part because there isn't much to say. The supposed murderer of course didn't do it, various crime figures are involved, people are hiding things, corrupt police get in the way, and the protagonist works it all out in the end (against an even more sinister background). The characters are pretty much what you expect in this sort of thing and fill their typical stereotypical roles without ever breaking outside of them. I found the cast uniformly unappealing and had difficulty identifying with anyone, which made the book a bit of a drag even if the mystery itself was entertaining and well-paced.

This is not a bad book, but it didn't grab me. I wanted either more exploration of the implications of the future world or better characters; both would have been nice. If you're a big fan of noir detective novels, this is an entertainingly surreal spin on one and probably has some appeal as both a parody and an homage. Otherwise, you're not missing much. It was Lethem's first novel, and given his subsequent fame I expect his later novels are better.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2006-09-18

Last modified and spun 2015-09-18