Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

December 23, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

This is a book which has received a fair amount of critical acclaim, but I can’t say that I was very impressed. Lethem isn’t the first, nor the last, to meld SF with the “hard boiled detective” genre. Instead of building off the detective theme, the way Brin does in Kiln People, Lethem is content to simply execute it. While he is a strong writer from a technical standpoint and does a creditable job with the narrative voice, I felt like bored with the main character before I got through the first ten pages. Perhaps someone who is more of a mystery novel fan wouldn’t feel the same way, but I suspect the typical mystery reader has slogged through dozens of these types of narratives themselves and may not be so impressed either.

If you strip away the narrative voice, there are three areas left for the novel to impress: the characters, the plot, and Lethem’s vision of a dystopian future. The characters are butressed by the dialogue, which is probably the novel’s strong point. Unfortunately the characters generally spend more time throwing snarky remarks back and forth than talking about anything of real substance. The main character has a number of quirks and flaws that never seem particularly relevant to what is going on. Most of the other characters get comparatively little attention, and no one changes over the course of the story. The plot is the weakest point of the novel. It is never clear what is motivating the main character, and his method for solving the mystery is more Law and Order than Sherlock Holmes: he spends very little time on analysis and mainly rudely confronts every named character in the apparently justified hopes they will tell him what he needs to know. The mystery itself and its resolution are standard fare. The most interesting parts of the book are those that deal with the future world. Lethem has fun with genetic engineering, but the real meat of the novel is in the depiction of a society pacified with drug use. The comparisons on the cover to Brave New World are rather unfortunate. While Lethem’s ideas are similar, they are even less plausible and somewhat superfluous to the plot. I would have prefered more fleshing out of the world and less of the running in place detective story.

I don’t want to spoil it but I also felt the ending was very poor. I suppose I’ve been quite negative but while this isn’t a bad book per se I really don’t see why it got so much attention, first novel or not. I’ll probably give Lethem another try eventually, but so far he’s yet to impress.

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