If there were a delegation of ambassadors between the nation of mainstream of literature and the islands of genre fiction, we’d certainly want Jonathan Lethem to head up that delegation. I’ve already talked a little bit about the SF world of Lethem’s debut novel Gun, With Occasional Music, but what about its noir elements? Essentially, the entire novel operates on a science fiction conceit with noir twist. And without this narrative device in place, the book probably wouldn’t even exist.
In numerous interviews and essays, Lethem refers to his undying love for Philip K. Dick, an influence that he wears on his sleeve throughout not only this first novel, but many of his later books too. However, the work of Raymond Chandler seems to be a competing if not stronger influence throughout Gun, With Occasional Music, insofar as that it not only inspires several characters’ very existence, but also the noir tendencies of Chandler serve a navigational beacon for the tone of the book. Before the story begins, Gun presents the reader with a line from Raymond Chandler’s last Philip Marlowe novel Playback;
and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket.
In the future Los Angeles of Lethem’s novel, sentient animals are a fact of life, meaning there is an actual kangaroo in a dinner jacket! This one who turns out to be an assassin hired to kill the book’s protagonist, a wisecracking private detective named Metcalf. Despite being over-the-top, the notion of a kangaroo hitman becomes paradoxically subtle in the course of the narrative. This is because Lethem understands the tone of noir perfectly and uses its sensibilities to make every single science fiction premise embedded in his fictional universe come across as a blasé observation on the part of Metcalf. Essentially, the smoky and matter-of-fact framework of noir allows Lethem to perform deft world building without clumsily trying to explain everything.
Another way in which noir sensibilities are layered into Gun, With Occasional Music is through the numbing effect of the fictional drug known as “make.” Because every single character-including Metcalf-are on make constantly, there’s an almost grainy quality to the narrative. Nothing is objective and nearly everything observed by Metcalf could be a mistake because he’s so screwed up half the time. But this isn’t some psychedelic trip the character is experiencing, but rather a sort of plodding and deadpan kind of drunkenness. In this way, every time someone snorts a hit of “make” Lethem’s prose is getting high (or low) on noir itself. Is Lethem making a commentary here that the best way to present one genre is to mix it with another and snort it all up really quick? Maybe. Make is a blend of several different kinds of drugs, and Gun, With Occasional Music is certainly a blend of more than one kind of genre. It isn’t straightforward science fiction, nor is it completely noir either. And that’s because there’s comedic elements in the book too. Some of Marlowe-esque banter is even reminiscent of the Woody Allen short story “The Whore of Mensa.” Like Woody Allen, Lethem knows that to borrow from noir like Chandler automatically invites some kind of parody. Appropriation of a style like noir is tricky, but with the perfect blend, the reader might not be too worried about everything coming off too gimmicky. If Lethem was a lesser writer, Gun, With Occasional Music might come across like a crummy mash-up. But it doesn’t, because Lethem wasn’t just mashing up Philip K. Dick with Raymond Chandler. Though he does rely upon the noir conceits to create a mood, and needs the science fiction layering to make it seem unique, he uses one other ingredient. Mystery.
Like so many good storytellers, Lethem loves a good mystery. Which is ultimately what makes Chandler, Dick, and even Allen’s “The Whore of Mensa” really work. Though noir is not mystery just like a rectangle is not a square, many noir-style stories can be mysteries. But the beauty of a mystery within a noir narrative is that not everything has to make complete sense. In this way, noir is a nice representative of all good fiction. The protagonist might not have all their loose ends wrapped up, plot points might be confusing, and we may never know who killed the chauffeur. But if it feels right, we’re okay.
Gun, With Occasional Music accomplishes this and more. If you’ve already seen Blade Runner a million times, but are hankering for a perfect science fiction noir tale, this is most certainly the novel for you.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.