Apr 5 2011 1:19pm

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

Gun With Occasional Music by Jonathan LethemWelcome 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 Lethem But 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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Lev Rosen
1. LevACRosen
I totally and completely second your advice. This book is weird and wonderful, and it was the first Lethem I read.
Mouldy Squid
2. Mouldy_Squid
This was my first Lethem as well. A fantastic forgotten classic of Science Fiction. More people should read this book. Thank you for raising its profile.
Joanne Center
3. thegloop
I really enjoyed Girl in Landscape and Amnesia Moon also. Lethem actually wrote quite a few genre books before he broke out with Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude.
Ryan Britt
4. ryancbritt
@thegloop One could probably write pages and pages about Lethem and his various dances with genre. I like Amnesia Moon a lot too! I think the thing with Gun that blows my mind is just how little it's talked about! I really enjoyed his most recent novel too though.
Ben JB
5. Ben JB
I've read Lethem's first three novels--Gun, Amnesia Moon, As She Climbed Across the Table--and they're all interesting and worthwhile. That said, I think Gun lets down at the end--or at least, that's my memory of it.
Rich Horton
6. ecbatan
It's a bit off to call it "Genre in the Mainstream", since when it was published, it was marketed as SF (as were all of his first four novels-- don't forget Girl in Landscape), and Lethem was regarded as an SF writer, regularly appearing in Asimov's, getting Nebula nominations, etc.

Your point that many writers who know him from his later novels may well be ignorant of his work prior to Motherless Brooklyn in entirely valid, to be sure. But I think Gun, With Occasional Music is still reasonably well remembered in our field.

Neat book, mind you. (It's one of the first I reviewed with an eye to publication, too. (The review was rejected, partly because I compared it to some of Phil Dick's novels ...))
Ryan Britt
7. ryancbritt
@ecbatan Fair points all the way around. Funny irony about comparing the book to Dick novels! That's a silly reason to reject a review! Lethem would be likely be flattered by such a comparison.

As far as the book's status when it was published, you certainly have some points. I suppose my memory might be little hazy. I remember a friend of mine pulling this book off the shelf at B&N in 1997 and saying "I'm buying this for you." And I think the shelf he pulled it from was fiction fiction, but I could be wrong.

In any case, I hope this column will be diverse enough in the sense that sometimes I'll dip very close to home (like Lethem and this book) and sometimes all be a little more on the fringe (like Karen Russell)

@Ben JB I have one friend of mine who would agree with you there. My memories of the ending are pretty fond, however.
Mouldy Squid
8. Mouldy_Squid
Up here in Canada, Gun... was marketed as Science Fiction and that was where they shelved it in the bookstores.
Ryan Britt
9. ryancbritt


I have this trade paperback version of The Dark Knight Returns with a weird cover, issued by warner books (not DC) that says "science fiction" on the spine. How great is that?
Mouldy Squid
10. Mouldy_Squid
All my first edition Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Dark Knight Returns, Ronin and the like are all labeled Science Fiction on the spine. I think that the Canadian publishers (rightly) chose to market them as Science Fiction. Of course, this was back in the '80s when graphic novels were something new and were just beginning to show up in actual book stores. It was a safe bet that people who were buying S/F would chance purchasing such a new format for storytelling.
Rich Horton
11. ecbatan
By all means I think covering Lethem -- and his ilk -- is a good idea.

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