I’ve Been Reading Again…

When you’ve done something enough times, it’s hard to tell when it became a habit – which is some bastardization of a more coherent cliche.  But I don’t really develop habits, just fixations.  I suppose it’s functionally the same, though with the latter I’m capable of watching myself construct it.  So, my reading fixation continues apace, and the most recent thing I read is “Gun, With Occasional Music,” by Jonathan Lethem.

I mainly read on my phone via the Kindle app, which means that I have a stack of virtual books that are easily ignored, rather than an all-too-real pile that I need to step around, though that pile is there too.  So, I don’t really remember when or why it occurred to me to buy this particular book, but there it was, waiting at the top of my queue.  I only know a little about Lethem, and what I do know seems pretty unreliable: he’s a smart writer, he skirts the edges of genre, but is viewed as a literary writer; I feel like I read somewhere that he spent ten years working on his first book before soliciting publication – but again, I don’t know how reliable that information is.

His debut novel, “Gun,” isn’t skirting the edges of genre; it jumped right into the belly of two different ones.  It’s a PKD-style SF story and a noir (or is it Detective?  Crime?  Hard-boiled?  I don’t understand the distinctions).  It’s a big, druggy, hallucinogenic P.I. story, right down to the evolved kangaroo antagonist (fittingly named “Joey”), the state-issued dope dispensary (every time’s free!), and the femme fatales.

I’ve read exactly one noir book, and that was Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”  I liked TBS fine, but it raised an issue that’s bound to come up when reading an older book: how much has the familiarity of these tropes sucked the life out of the ancestral story?  Because let’s face it, we’ve been steeped in the tropes of TBS our entire lives.  I literally just watched an episode of Adventure Time (which is wonderful in its own right) that aped that style, but in AT, it was the sentient portable gaming system (BMO) that had a black-and-white case to solve within the confines of Finn and Jake’s tree house.

In the case of TBS, it totally holds up – as long as you handicap it for all of its era-relevant points of view.

On the surface I was fully prepared to enjoy Lethem’s “Gun,” and for the most part I did.  As a Chandler-esque noir story, he hits every beat square on the skin.  The protagonist (Conrad Metcalf) is sufficiently troubled, and has a sufficient sense of wounded righteousness; the love interest(s) emerge(s), and is romanced, at the moment you’d expect that to happen; conversations happen in that stylish universe where everyone’s blithely amazing at repartee – I could almost hear the “now look here, see”‘s that weren’t expressly on the page; Metcalf has that Philip Marlowe ability to both talk his way out of any situation and/or get himself a mouthful of knuckles in equal measure.  (See, now I’M doing it!); and at the end, Metcalf is one step ahead of everybody, and we get the scene where he lays it all out for the stunned on-lookers (one of which is another P.I., though this one an evolved ape named Walter Surface).  Case closed, dollface.

So, as a noir it’s both successful and kind of inessential all at once.  I can’t say that I would prefer this noir to its inspiration(s), but I also can’t say that it’s in any way worse than its inspiration(s).  I don’t know if that’s high praise or makes the book redundant.  It could just be that since I’m not a huge noir/crime/detective reader that I don’t fully appreciate a well-rendered visitation of the tropes, as I might appreciate the same in other genres.

If you love noir/crime/detective stories, then you will like this story.  He got it right.

But, there’s also the SF elements, which are the following:

* there are evolved (speaking, working, essentially human) animals, some of which are characters we meet and interact with in the book.

* children aren’t raised anymore; they’re given some kind of hormone treatment that accelerates their growth – but they don’t just become people, they become some kind of perversion, known as “Babyheads,” that have … umm, baby heads (and we have no idea why anyone would ever – EVER – think this was a good idea).

* the state maintains control through its police (here named “Inquisitors,” working for “The Office”) and issues free drugs, colloquially named “make,” that can be blended to taste from some basic ingredients, such as: Regrettol, Avoidal, Forgettol, etc. – though all contain that crucial ingredient: Addictol.

* criminals don’t go to prison; instead they are put in some kind of cryo-prison – which, actually, doesn’t seem like much of a crime deterrent, since (as we find out) the criminals emerge from their sentences with no sense that time has passed, and regrettably, none of them were Wesley Snipes from Demolition Man.

* there are two forms of currency: plain old money, and Karma, the latter of which is reduced through interaction with inquisitors, who debit the Karma from the transgressor’s electronic chit.  We don’t see anyone awarded additional Karma, but the implication is that that happens.

* and perhaps most weirdly: the protagonist has had his sex nerves swapped (?!) with those of his ex.  See, they did this as something sweet and intimate when they were together, but in the grand tradition of heart-breaking dames throughout noir history, she left him that way when she split – which is a pretty literal stamp on that predictable package.

The reason I’m going into serious detail with these is that we get into serious detail with them throughout the book.  And that’s cool; it’s interesting.

But the problem I had was that I never felt like these details were essential to the telling of the story, or the illustration of its themes.  Maybe it’s because it’s a novel, rather than a TV show or movie, that these details didn’t really color what I saw in the story, but I think it’s more likely because these things never seemed to rise above the level of being metaphors for the kind of things I already expected thematically from a story like this.

I expected all the characters to have some kind of darkness – hence, “noir” – and so the fact that they all snort “make” didn’t seem that crazy to me; it’s not too different than everyone always being in need of a drink, which is what I’d expect here – and which they also often partake.  And even though the specifics of the drugs (like Forgettol) are a lot more literal in telling us that specific characters need and want to forget, that kind of vibe is all over a story like this already, no?

Same with the evolved animals and babyheads – the characters like that that we meet don’t tell us anything about that concept except the facts of it.  They are all functionally the kind of characters we would meet in this kind of story, and they behave and emote exactly like people.

And of course poor Metcalf and his surgical impotence – though somehow, late in the book, his woo-woo still knows what to do.  Even this feels pretty on the nose as a metaphor for that broken-hearted, down-on-his-luck kind of private dick.  Pun intended.

It has the effect of turning ideas into setting, rather than theme.  The ideas that could come out of these setups would make an interesting book all on their own, were they given all that room to breathe.

The closest we come is toward the end of the book – SPOILER ALERT (I guess?  This book was released in 1994…) – when Metcalf finally loses all of his Karma and is put away in the freezer (see the literalization of these cop-story concepts?) for six years.  When he emerges, everything had degraded.  I forgot to mention one other piece of world-building: in the world of this story, only inquisitors – private, or Office-affiliated – are permitted to ask questions.  Throughout the book, Metcalf’s questions are treated as rude incursions in conversation, until they see that he’s got a license.  And in the future in which he awakens, people don’t just not ask questions anymore, even memory itself has become distasteful.  Of course Metcalf, being the quintessential investigator, is super pissed by this development.

Here I thought we were heading off the map of this kind of story, that we were about to see Metcalf, now distanced from any urgency to solve the case, really struggle with the existentialism of the reality he suddenly finds himself in.  And I thought, “A-ha!  THIS is the “big deal” with Lethem, then.  He’s about to flip the script on this whole thing!”

Nope.  After some minor hand-wringing, and then some sleuthing, he puts it all together.  So, it’s off to The Office for the big reveal!  In the only twist against my expectations, the book resolves with him murdering Joey – the Kangaroo that set all this in motion – and then turning himself in.  We know he’s going away for a while this time, and who knows what he’ll emerge to find.

I found that I didn’t really care what he would find.  And that’s too bad, because there was probably plenty of opportunity to get me invested in this bizarre dystopic world that Metcalf toiled within.  And really, I could have been more invested in Metcalf as well.  It seems pretty interesting that this guy that is totally committed to his ideals of justice and inquiry would be trapped in a world without justice, and really without even curiosity.  That seems like something that could have been deeply explored without boring me.

The one story I kept thinking of while reading was Blade Runner, and no, I never read the PKD book, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”.  That was also a noir, with it’s troubled detective, its femme fatales (three, by my count), and it’s dystopia.  But the key difference (at least in the film) was that it really puts its teeth into you about about what is and is not human behavior.  More human than human indeed.

But in the case of this story, it didn’t make me think anything about what it means to be human, despite all the strange diversity on display, it just made me think about how much I love a witty rejoinder.

My verdict: Optional

Am I just missing some essential thing about Lethem’s work?  Does anyone have a recommendation for one his books that would really get me going?  I feel like I’m being hard on him here, and I should point out that the amount of skill on display in this book is pretty impressive – but I also think a MacArthur Grant winner can withstand my armchair critiques.  I expected a lot more out of this book.  Hmm.

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6 Responses to I’ve Been Reading Again…

  1. Linda says:

    Great review and I’m glad that you’re actually reading and not editing/revising/feedbacking? I’ve been meaning to read Lethem for a while, but I think I’m going to start with Motherless Brooklyn since it’s an award winner…then jump around. I love that cover you found…I’d like that as a poster. Maybe I’ll write a Wesley Snipes from Demolition Man type book. Nah.

  2. Skye says:

    An interesting and thorough review! I tried and failed at Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude a while back, because it reminded whoever reviewed it of Michael Chabon, and I love his books. But there was a self-congratulatory tone in Fortress that I just couldn’t read past.

    • mattllavin says:

      Yep. I was definitely expected something more along the lines of Chabon. I have a hair-trigger on dumping a book a quarter of the way through, and I probably would have done that here, but the pedigree of the author made me give it the benefit of the doubt.
      Thanks!

  3. Well, it is his first book. You can’t expect _too_ much. I really, really enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn.

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