In Gun, with Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem blends dystopia and noir in order to depict the Oakland of the future: a surreal world where the written word is obsolete and animals wear clothes and behave as humans. It’s also a place where corrupt Inquisitors run amok and one’s social standing is determined by “karma points.”
In the midst of this disorienting environment, Conrad Metcalf is a reassuringly anachronistic figure. Rather than serving the monolithic institution known as the Office, he embraces his own brand of investigation, walking the streets and asking questions as a Private Inquisitor. The Office has tolerated his presence and unorthodox methods, but their complacency evaporates once Conrad starts working for a new client: Orton Angwine.
According to the Office, Orton killed Maynard Stanhunt in a seedy motel room. Unfortunately, Conrad isn’t convinced by such a simple, convenient explanation. At first, his primary task is to exonerate his client. However, it isn’t long before his relentless desire for truth gets him into deep trouble. Every time Conrad tries to penetrate the bureaucracy and peel back the layers of corruption, the Office is ready to punish him for his insubordination.
Conrad is too jaded to believe in justice, but he is fundamentally committed to unraveling the mysterious circumstances of Stanhunt’s death. In order to solve the case, he will have to fight off a trigger happy kangaroo, track down a monstrous babyhead, and try to interrogate people who are addicted to Forgettol – the latest drug designed to obliterate pesky memories.
Lethem’s writing is as addictive as Forgettol, but it won’t make you lose track of your name or address. Throughout Gun, with Occasional Music, Lethem’s style achieves an impressive balance between the gritty and the grotesque. Unlike other writers of dystopian fiction, Lethem avoids didacticism. The absence of preachy futurity allows the novel’s genres to mesh together, rather than competing for the reader’s attention. There is also plenty of snappy dialogue, and Conrad seems to have an inexhaustible repertoire of one-liners. I was also impressed by the mystery plot’s complexity and originality. I thought I had the ending all figured out, but I was dead wrong.