Thursday, May 19, 2011

Gun, with Occasional Music

Title: Gun, with Occasional Music
Author: Jonathan Lethem
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 1994

Recommendation: A solid science fiction parable with a mystery plot and a message to boot.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: Conrad Metcalf is a down-on-luck detective in the future Oakland. He is hired to investigate the murder of a man who was his client just before and follows the threads of murder in a society where animals talk, everyone uses drugs, and asking questions is impolite.

Reactions: One of my co-workers mentioned this book to me a while back and I remembered it because of the unusual title. It turned out to be a good recommendation despite the blurb on the book that didn't sound too interesting.

Conrad Metcalf is a very intriguing character. He is a man not afraid to ask questions in a world where questions are taboo. He is not motivated by money, even though his business isn't doing too well. At the same time, he is a drug addict and not a stranger to violence. It's hard for me to say that I really liked him, but I really rooted for him throughout the book.

The futuristic world that the plot takes place in is a rather bleak one. Most people are on mood altering drugs all of the time. The government encourages the drug use and the main character is no exception in this regard. The world is run by karma points which can be given or taken away by the police. If your karma points run out, you are placed in a freezer to be released months or years later. Children can be given a treatment to mature faster and turn out smart and cynical. Animals walk on two legs and speak, but are second-rate citizens in the world. It's not a pretty picture.

The plot revolves around the murder of Metcalf's previous client. I found the mystery part of the plot to be well constructed if a bit slow at first. It picks up the pace mid-book and kept my interest well. I was very satisfied with the resolution of the novel. The second part of the book is definitely my favorite.

Gun, with Occasional Music is the sort of book that is entertaining, but also clearly written as a parable to the dangers of losing the critical thinking skills. It's full of ironies and clever subtext. On one hand, I appreciated some of that, on the other it makes the plot feel somehow secondary to the message at hand. All in all, definitely a book I would recommend reading, but at the same time not my favorite this year.


  1. Your final paragraph makes me think that if you enjoyed this for what it is, you might enjoy Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Not science fiction, just mystery, but still very interesting to read. I also really enjoyed Jedediah Berry's The Manual of Detection which does have some science fictional elements (in a not-quite steampunk sort of way) and was a very entertaining mystery.

  2. Thanks for the recommendations! I haven't actually heard of either book before, but I am going to check them out.

  3. I think I like this book more now, looking back, than I did at the time of reading. The drug use, question thing, baby heads and animals may have been too jarring for me to fully enjoying it while I was reading. Perhaps I just like the idea of this book if that makes sense.

    I've said for some time that I do want to read more by Lethem.

  4. It's an interesting book to discuss and there are lots of interesting ideas there, but I agree that the world and the characters are at first to jarring to really get into the reading experience itself.