Haley’s Comet-esque, there are not many chances I have to praise a science fiction book cover, so presented with the opportunity, I’m going to pounce. The cover of Jonathan Lethem’s 1994 Gun, with Occasional Music is not only a nice piece of retro art, it represents the novel at all levels. (Feels strange writing those words...) The surface is classic: the character expressions, the clothing, the mood, the usage of lighting—it could grace the cover of a 1930s detective magazine and none would be the wiser. Except—except there’s that kangaroo, in a suit. Incongruous it may seem, yet indicative it remains.
Raymond Chandler inviting Michael Swanwick and Philip K. Dick to his house for drinks (or perhaps something a little harder, a little more psychedelic), Gun, with Occasional Music is classic detective noir with a futuristic, surreal spin. While Lethem puts the majority of his effort (successfully) into getting the right tone, the right structure, and the right character dynamics to match the revered crime writer’s style, there remain enough evolved animals, synthetic drugs, and other social and media oddities for the kangaroo to be fully deserving of its place on the cover.
With its karma points, super-intelligent babies, evolved animals, and sex nerve swapping, the future becomes something bizarre in Gun, with Occasional Music. Rendering it fully absurd, however, is Lethem’s full-bodied capture of Chandler’s style. The self-abusive private eye, the coquettish damsels, the thundering right crosses, the voice-over narration, the wisecracking, the tweed and fedora, the hunches and leads—the overall 1930’s ticker tape feel completely juxtapose the kangaroo, musical guns, cryogenic prisons, and other oddities. Thus, when Ryan Britt in his Tor.com review states “the entire novel operates on a science fiction conceit with noir twist” I would say the exact opposite. Drenched in Chandler, the novel operates in the mode of hardboiled noir with a science fiction twist. If one strips away the aforementioned sf decorations, they are left with characterization, dialogue, plotting, ineraction, and scenes precisely in the Chandler mold. Konrad Metcalf is Phillip Marlowe, just caught in an uncanny near future.
In the end, Gun, with Occasional Music is a book for a reader who can really appreciate the nuances of Chandler’s style, yet not be turned off by its use in a surreal setting. A classic whodunit unraveling in cynical P.I. style, Metcalf pushes and stumbles his way through a labyrinth of clues, mafia, police, and witnesses to track down the murderer of a well known businessman. Kept in a haze by the drugs he can’t shake, if it wasn’t for that damn kangaroo things might just cohere…