Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathon Lethem (1994) 262 p.

Book reviews can be difficult, which is why a lot of mine are so amateurish. A professional critic will, without fail, hold a book up to the author’s previous works, examine it through the prism of the zeitgeist, or compare it to works that examine similar themes. Ideally all three. I often wonder where some of these critics, who are often only in their 30s, found the time to have a thorough background in the classics and still speak with authority about the new field of fiction released every year. This is why, when I read a new author, I often feel like I should start with their very first book. I usually don’t, because most writers take a while to hit their stride (see: Peter Carey’s Bliss) but if the concept seems interesting enough – and if it’s an author I want to read, rather than one I just feel obligated to read – I’ll start with their first book.

Gun With Occasional Music is a surreal, genre-blending tale of a hardboiled private eye in a dystopian future California. Most of the populace is high on government-supplied, mind-controlling drugs, various species of animals have been evolved to a sapient level, and citizens are all issued with “karma” on their ID cards, which will land them in cryogenic freezing if they reach zero for various petty offences.

It’s clear that this is not, from the outset, a properly realised science fiction world. The sci-fi flairs have about as much substance to them as the average pulp detective story. Lethem definitely nails that part on the head, at least – his prose perfectly captures the cynical and depressing world of the private detective, and the protagonist, Conrad Metcalf, is an admirably pathetic loser who’s always ready with a flippant retort. It reminded me of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, in the sense that the familiar trappings served as a solid rock for the reader amid a more unfamiliar setting. It was just pulled off with less style and less sense of purpose. (To be fair, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union was written at the height of Chabon’s career, whereas Gun With Occasional Music was Lethem’s first novel).

This is not a bad book, but it’s largely forgettable, and I spent a lot of it wondering why Lethem didn’t just write a hardboiled detective novel. His future dystopia is so thinly sketched out that I often felt like it was a tongue-in-cheek allegory for something, but I’m damned if I can figure out what. In any case, even if he wasn’t a prominent novelist nowadays, the gift for prose that he clearly exhibits in Gun With Occasional Music would be enough for me to read his next novel despite this one’s failings.