“Conrad Metcalf has problems. He has a monkey on his back, a rabbit in his waiting room, and a trigger-happy kangaroo on his tail. (Maybe evolution therapy is not such a good idea.). He's been shadowing Celeste, the wife of an affluent Oakland urologist. Maybe falling in love with her a little at the same time. When the doctor turns up dead, Metcalf finds himself caught in a crossfire between the boys from the Inquisitor's Office and gangsters who operate out of the back room of the Fickle Muse. Jonathan Lethem's first novel is a science fiction mystery. It's funny. It's not so funny.” -Taken from Goodreads.com
Published in 1994, hardcover with a $14.99 cover price, 240 pages.
Having read Lethem'sAmnesia Moon, which was an enjoyable surrealistic journey through the west coast, I was itching to read another of his novels for the past year. I have to admit that I choseGun, With Occasional Music over some of his more recent work solely because the cover is fucking awesome. Anthropomorphic kangaroo with a black eye, smoldering expression, and a glass of scotch? Sign me up!
Lethem loosely crafted a (somewhat) dystopian future: a merit/demerit system utilizing “karma cards,” a workforce consisting primarly of evolved animals, and government sanctioned drugs blended to an individual’s needs (one part addictol, one part acceptol, two parts forgettol, etc).
Asking a person questions is no longer accepted in this society, so only a person with an inquisitor’s license can do so without gaining the ire of the totalitarian police force known as The Office, which can adjust your karma levels and will cryogenically freeze you if you go into “karmic debt.” This world is reminiscent of the worlds created by a developing, but still paranoid, Phillip K. Dick.
The setting itself is intriguing on its own, but Lethem decides to go one further and insert a noir plot full of dry banter and surprising twists. Conrad Metcalfe, a “private inquisitor,” is single and drug addicted, an emotionally damaged Nick Charles who won't think twice about slapping around the kangaroo that has been tailing him all night. The characters surrounding Metcalfe are written both thin and robust in turns, depending mostly on their treatment by the mercurial and stubborn protagonist.
The pacing of Gun, With Occasional Music really sets a great tone, and it wears its sci-fi and noir tropes with pride. I recommend it to anyone who is a fan of genre fiction, especially if you don't mind a bit of surrealism zest. For a more spoiler-filled synopsis, check out thewiki, because I won’t be ruining any of the mystery elements for you.