Sunday, September 09, 2007

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

I've had this book on my shelf for over a year, and I was finally done putting it off. I suspected it would be one of those books that would suck me in and force me to put everything else off until I'd finished it, even really basic things like eating, flossing my teeth, responding to the carbon monoxide alarm, etc. And that's basically what happened, except as soon as I finished this book, I immediately began reading it again. So it was a much better/worse book/situation than I had feared.

After reading a book twice, you'd think I'd have a ton to say. But my feelings can be summed up into the type of lovely yet cliched love song lyrics that you hear repeated at weddings and anniversaries and in high school year books and stuff. I love this book, and I'm going to K.I.T. It's just the type of genre blend of noir/fantasy that I like, though I don't know if I'd call it fantasy. It's more imaginative than what fantasy usually implies, in that you won't find any vampires or werewolves or ghosts - it's more of a distopia a la George Orwell or Aldous Huxley or Philip K. Dick. It takes place in a world where asking questions is taboo - almost illegal. The only people who can ask questions come from the Office of the Inquisitor, or they are P.I.s, like the protagonist, Conrad Metcalf. These people carry a license to ask questions. Everyone carries cards that keep track of their karmic levels, and when it gets really low, or down to zero, they go in The Freezer, which is like jail, except not as boring, because you're just frozen for a couple of years or whatever, and you wake up having done your time without any threat of rape or bad food or barbell accidents. I mean, the characters in the novel all feel very threatened by The Freezer, but I personally didn't understand why it was so bad. Don't get me wrong - getting frozen and waking up ten years later, but feeling like ten years ago was just yesterday, that would be disorienting, and you'd have a lot of catching up to do with friends and family and world news, but doesn't it seem preferable to just sitting in jail for ten years?

So the question you should be asking yourselves, while you're reading this book is, is this really a distopia? The jail threat doesn't really seem like a threat - to wake up months or years after your sentence and voila! you're free, and no time has passed. Also, Metcalf is constantly snorting his personalized blend of make, which seemed super rock star to me, and also, the make is completely free. You can pick it up from the makery whenever you run out. The scales are sliding towards utopia. Here's Metcalf's morning routine:

"So I showered an shaved and got my gums bleeding with a toothbrush, then stumbled into the kitchen to cauterize the wounds with some scalding coffee. The mirror was still out, with fat, half-snorted lines of my blend stretching across it like double-jointed white fingers. I picked up the razor blade and steered the drugs back into a wax-paper envelope, and brushed the mirror off with my sleeve."

Except of course the make is dangerous, because nothing good ever comes for free (except maybe consensual back-scratches). Everyone's make is a unique blend of the following ingredients: Acceptol, Forgettal, Avoidol, Regrettol, Believol, whatever, and always Addictol. And certain components of make can be especially debilitating, like Blanketrol:

""They withdrew it when they found out it was completely hollowing out the inner life of the test subjects. The users went on functioning, but just by rote." He pinched at the nose of his glasses again. "Think of it as the opposite of deja vu - nothing reminds you of anything, not even of itself.""

Who's thinking of One Hundred Years of Solitude right now, when the town all gets the insomnia sickness, and forgets what everything is for? To be sure, Gun is nothing like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's books, in fact, the cover blurb on my edition says, "marries Chandler's style and Philip K. Dick's vision," and I'd say that's a very accurate description. Except that Metcalf doesn't take himself as seriously as Marlow, which I really appreciate. It makes him capable of thinking lines like this:

"I was playing this case existential, maybe a bit too existential. I needed a lead. I needed a client. Hell, I even needed a sandwich. There was probably little chance of Celeste Stanhunt coming downstairs and offering me a sandwich."

Or sometimes after delivering a really hard boiled line Metcalf will reflect, "Even I wasn't sure what that meant."

And Lethem turns some of the noir conventions on their ears. For example, Celeste Stanhunt is the desperate blonde who knows too much and intermittently presses up against Metcalf, full of lust. However, years ago Metcalf had this little operation where he switched nerve endings with an ex-girlfriend, supposedly just temporarily, for a night or two, so a woman can feel what it's like to be a man, and vice versa, but the ex ran off before they could have the operation reversed. So Metcalf is left with his male anatomy, but female sensations. At these times the quality of Lethem's imagination reminds me of the most memorable and tastiest little set-ups in Marquez, or even Italo Calvino short stories.

Anyhow, Gun is a brilliant who-done-it set in an inventive near-future. I won't go into the details of the mystery, because the world itself is much more fun to describe, and you'll need to pay close attention to the rules of this world to even have a prayer of solving the mystery before Metcalf does. There are evolved animals, who walk upright on two feet and talk. The muscle for a gangster is provided by a kangaroo, there's a P.I. who's an ape, and there are kittens learning to read and rabbits selling subscriptions door-to-door. There are babyheads, which are an entire generation of babies who were given some sort of evolution therapy to make them grow up faster, but it went wrong somewhere, and the results are somewhat mature adults trapped in the bodies of infants, drinking themselves to oblivion in Baby Bars. There is the Office of the Inquisitor, which just sounds bad-ass and feudal, and where Metcalf used to work, before his conscious got the better of him.

The only thing that didn't work so well for me was that Metcalf didn't seem to have much of a reason to get involved in the case in the first place. He didn't strike me as the type of idealist to defend the innocent just because it's the right thing to do, but in fact, that's what he does. He gets a stronger motive about half way in.

Gun, With Occasional Music is a quick and very cleverly plotted read, with lots of fun jolts to the imagination. And the title eventually makes sense. It takes a long time, but it's well worth the wait.