Genre in the Mainstream

Genre in the Mainstream: Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music

Welcome to Genre in the Mainstream! This weekly series highlights one writer at a time who is widely considered to belong in the genre of mainstream literature but whose work frequently blends in other genres. While I’m not claiming these authors for the science fiction, fantasy, or horror camps, chances are if you like those genres, then you’ll like these books, too!

This week I go after the lost novel of the most famous contemporary genre- bender of them all; Jonathan Lethem’s first book; Gun, with Occasional Music.

Brining up Jonathan Lethem in a column like this might seem totally obvious. Gun was nominated for a Nebula, and also won the Locus award for Best First Novel in 1994, Lethem has a tattoo that reads UBIK (a reference to Philip K. Dick), his essay collection The Disappointment Artist contains numerous SFF references, and nearly all of his novels have genre elements. Even his most recent novel, Chronic City, features a New York City seemingly in some kind of alternate dimension, complete with a failed child star married to an astronaut who is perpetually trapped in orbit. Anyone who’s picked up a comic book knows that The Fortress of Solitude was a place Superman lived long before it was a Lethem novel. So what gives? If you’ve heard of Jonathan Lethem, then chances are you know he’s got some genre elements to his writing.

Jonathan LethemBut when I’ve asked a good majority of my well-read friends (both SFF readers and non) to name Lethem’s first novel, invariably everyone says Motherless Brooklyn. But it’s not! Lethem’s first novel is a hard boiled science fiction romp called Gun, with Occasional Music. Possessing both elements of Philip K. Dick and Raymond Chandler, this novel is a snapshot of Lethem as a younger writer simply reveling in his obsessions.

Typical of science fiction from the 1990s, reading Gun now creates a sort of retro-nostalgia for what we predicted the future was going to look like. The internet is obviously absent in this future world, as are portable phones and various other innovations. And yet, nothing about the novel feels silly or underdeveloped because it uses its noir façade as a way around any kind of problems with the believability of the science fiction. The story follows the machinations of Conrad Metcalf, a private inquisitor assigned to a murder case. With Metcalf, it’s hard not to picture a cross between Harrison Ford’s Deckard and Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. And just in case you’re wondering, there is a lot of narration that feels like voice over.

Metcalf’s world is full of genetically modified animals who are sentient, genetically enhanced babies who are intelligent and have their own subculture (“baby heads”) and a system of human credit called “karma” which essentially exists on little magnetic strips which everyone keeps in their pockets. But the most interesting concept in Gun is the notion of the very legal drug known as “make.”

Depending on the user, make is a blend of various narcotics; usually from drugs with names like forgettol and addictol. The great thing about make is how essential it is to the murder-mystery plot. Because Metcalf is constantly on make, some of his narration comes across a little hazy and unreliable. Further, many characters who are completely screwed up on forgettol are unwitting pawns in a larger, deadlier game. Add a gun-toting kangaroo into the mix and you’ve pretty much got an unforgettable page-turning adventure novel.

But does any of this hard-boiled sci-fi stuff elevate Gun, With Occasional Music to the category of serious literature, rather than “fun” literature? Compared with Lethem’s later books, the knee-jerk reaction would probably be “nope.” And yet, there is something pervasively relevant about Gun. In this future world, the news media no longer reports the news in a straightforward manner; instead ominous music is played to inform listeners of bad news. (Ominous music plays a lot.) Further, handguns themselves come equipped with soundtracks, adding a narrative to even the most basic acts of cartoon-ish violence. None of these aspects detracts from the action either. If anything, music coming out of guns and kangaroo assassins feel more real because the world they inhabit is so completely realized. Lethem doesn’t spend one second with an info-dump to explain any of this to you, but instead just drops you in the world. It’s up to you to figure out why animals are talking and the radio reports news in an avant garde style.

The only shame about Gun, With Occasional Music is that more people haven’t read it, or are simply unaware of it. It occupies that rare place among novels where it can exist as both a guilty pleasure and piece of serious art simultaneously.

Either way, if you’ve NEVER read Jonathan Lethem, I’m here to offer you the strange advice almost no one will ever give you: read this one first!

Photo of Jonathan Lethem and his UBIK tattoo courtesy of Justin Taylor taken from the book The World Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide by Justin Taylor and Eva Talmadge


Ryan Britt is a regular blogger for Tor.com. He wishes it was okay to talk like a hard-boiled science fiction detective all the time.

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