Gun, with occasional music

Gun, with occasional music / Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors on the “approved” list for NPR-drinking academics. As a result, he’s not a “science fiction” author. Gun, with occasional music was his first published novel, but he first achieved mainstream success with Motherless Brooklyn, a noirtype novel written from the perspective of a narrator suffering from Tourette’s syndrome.

Lethem is much beloved of literary hipsters, and like Dave Eggers I have a hard time getting into his work because of the sheer amount of obnoxious love directed his way. Gun, with occasional music was a book I attempted to read shortly after it came out, but I never got around to finishing it until last year.

Brief plot summary

Conrad Metcalf is a private detective in a world where most menial positions are held by genetically engineered animals, an individual’s worth is measured by their karma, and designer drugs are freely distributed by the government. After a former client shows up dead and a flimsy coverup makes Metcalf the number one suspect, Metcalf must avoid an angry kangaroo, gangsters, and the Powers That Be in an attempt to figure out what is going on.

So how is it?

Eh. It’s not really my thing, but I appreciated it for what it was. Lethem writes a world that’s derivative of Philip K. Dick in a style that’s derivative of Raymond Chandler. If you like both of those authors then it’s a fun blend, but if you’re a huge fan of either one then you’re likely to get frustrated at Lethem’s failure to live up to Chandler’s prose or Dick’s conceptual depth. It’s an intentionally clunky novel that is sometimes too clever for its own good, but there are sufficient twists and turns as to make it worth trying out.

The plot is interesting, throwing in enough weirdness to keep sf fans engaged and hardboiled readers confused alongside enough last-minute betrayals, plot twists, and street denizens to satisfy the latter group. I especially liked the resolution, as the ending actually does a great job of blending Chandler and Dick’s styles into a finale that works better than the rest of the book.

One thing that I found distracting was the sheer number of similarities with the William Shatner “penned” Tekwar series. And no kidding, there are a huge number of parallels between the two. Lethem’s is certainly “objectively” “better”, but he doesn’t quite master the hardboiled prose style and as a result (I can’t believe I’m actually about to write this) William Shatner’s novel is the more readable.

Can anybody explain what penological goal putting prisoners in suspended animation is supposed to accomplish? If prison is supposed to be a place of rehabilitation, suspended animation fails because the prisoner can’t actually learn anything. If it’s to keep “society” safe, then releasing them back on the streets when their sentence is “up” defeats that purpose. It’s a weirdly popular trope that doesn’t make any sense to me as it’s normally presented.


It’s not a book I’d list among my favorites. It’s to heavy for light reading but there’s not enough there for people looking for anything deeper. It could be a transitional book for fans of Chandler et al. to get them into sf, or a means of getting sf fans into hardboiled detective fiction, but it’s not great at either genre and will only really sway the dedicated reader.

I have recommended it, with mixed success. People generally don’t know how to take it. In some ways, it’s the Lost in translation of book recommendations – it’s very difficult, even with a detailed reading history, to figure out whether or not a given patron will actually like it or not. Generally I’d recommend The city & the city over this one, despite my distaste for China Miéville (as a person, not as an author). It’s written in such a way that whether it’s sff or “realistic” fiction is more-or-less up to the reader to decide.

Some cross recommendations

Lethem’s work is essentially a straight mashup of the following:
The big sleep / Raymond Chandler
Now wait for last year / Philip K. Dick

Straight-up noir recommendation:
White butterfly / Walter Mosley

Recommendation of ambiguous genre:
The city & the city / China Miéville

Straight-up stupid recommendation:
TekWar / William Shatner


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