Gun, with Occasional Music
Jonathan Lethem
Review by Paul Melko

Lethem attempts to marry the style of the hard-boiled detective genre with ribo-funk, in this tale of Conrad Metcalf, Private Inquisitor. In Lethem's future world, no one asks questions: it's too impolite. The only people who can do so are the Inquisitors, the police of this future L.A. Drugs are legal and encouraged, and evolution therapy allows sentient sheep, kangaroos, and apes as well as babyheads, quickly aged children still in the bodies of toddlers. It's an eerie world, Lethem drags his depressed and depressing protagonist through.

Metcalf's former employer, urologist Maynard Stanhunt, winds up dead in a seedy motel. The prime suspect, the wife Celeste's farmboy brother, hires Metcalf to find the real killer before his karmic level drops below zero and he gets frozen for a few years. But nobody wants Metcalf nosing around, especially the Public Inquisitor Officers on the case. Before long, Metcalf's own karmic level is dropping, and he's facing time in the freezer too.

Who killed the urologist, who's the babyhead's real father, why is there a gun-toting kangaroo on Metcalf's tail? These questions and more will be answered by the end of the novel.

Lethem has been praised widely for this stylistic piece. I was less than thrilled. Tasting like a futuristic Naked Lunch, the dismal world painted of future L.A. shows us bitter, lonely people with no happiness but for the next snort of make. The main protagonist is no different than the world he lives in; he is as fatalistic, as lonely, as desperate, as addicted as the rest of them. His final choice is drastic and immoral. The world Lethem depicts becomes more and more lonely, coming to the point where no one is allowed to remember anything. Each person consults a talking memory that tells them what they think of subjects and people.

While it is darkly humorous, Gun, with Occasional Music is ultimately a pessimistic depiction of society gone to great lengths to isolate everyone. There is little hope in this novel and no one to root for. I was left wondering why I bothered reading it.

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