I did a final blog post on Arizona Rookie League prospects yesterday, including the Cubs’ big bonus baby Juan Paniagua; some other Cubs, Rangers, and Royals prospects; and notes on Tyler Skaggs and Jacob Turner.
Back in December, reader JD recommended Jonathan Lethem’s 1994 novel Gun, with Occasional Music to me, saying:
It’s the best and funniest modern (well, futuristic) noir I’ve read — Chandler and Hammett by way of Philip K. Dick and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And it’s shorter than a playoff game, to boot.
All of which is pretty accurate – the various pull quotes from critics include two that mention the Dick/Chandler combination, but Lethem’s dystopian hard-boiled detective novel is also more wryly funny than either writer was, and occasionally a little too wrapped up in its own sci-fi stylings (although so was Dick’s Ubik). It’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, and certainly one of the quickest, including a clever twist in the final third of the book that differentiates it from the standard (and slightly hackneyed) hard-boiled format.
Lethem’s detective, Conrad Metcalf, is a drug-addicted “private inquisitor” – but the drug addiction isn’t a big deal, as everyone in the novel is using “make,” a blend of drugs provided for free by the government and customized for each individual, including components like Forgettol, Acceptol, and Addictol, as an actual opiate of the masses to keep everyone in line. Citizens also carry around magnetic cards that track their “karma points,” which can be increased or, more commonly in this book, deducted by formal inquisitors from The Office, the Gestapo-like police presence that stands in Metcalf’s way as he tries to help a client who’s been set up by the Office for a murder he didn’t commit – one that pushes his karma down to zero, threatening him with this new world’s equivalent of prison, cryogenic suspension. Oh, and Metcalf is being dogged by a trigger-happy gunsel who just happens to be an evolved kangaroo.
The rich details of Lethem’s dystopian world start to overwhelm what is, at heart, a straightforward detective novel, one where Metcalf starts investigating one case and ends up enmeshed in a conspiracy to cover up one crime that eventually involves a second murder, Metcalf getting knocked unconscious*, and a web of lies and suspicions of adultery that doesn’t clear up until the penultimate chapter. Even though I felt little or no sympathy for any of the characters involved in the crime, Lethem layered enough complexity into that part of the story that the story maintained my interest level right to the end, both to see how the crime took place (I didn’t figure it out) and how Metcalf’s own side story would be resolved.
*If there were a hard-boiled detective story drinking game, the detective taking a blackjack or other blunt object to the back of the head, describing the carpet as it approaches is face, and waking up somewhere else would be worth two shots.
The dystopian aspects varied in their effectiveness. The “make” was at the top of the list, both because of its veneer of plausibility and because of its increasing relevance to our dependency on Big Pharma (and I say this as someone who depends on them myself). The evolved animals are largely props beyond the kangaroo, who could just as easily have been human. The “babyheads,” children with evolved brains but immature bodies, seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever. The karma cards, once you get past the RPG experience-points feel, also feel somewhat prescient, written seven years before the Patriot Act and the start of our era of no-fly lists, monitoring of electronic communcations, and other erosions of privacy in the name of increasing security. It’s dark but feels more madcap than paranoid, even though there’s a clear paranoia underneath the surface. If you can gloss over some of the slightly siller sci-fi trappings of Gun, it’s a fast-paced detective story with enough of a serious underpinning to elevate it above the various pulp authors who’ve tried (and mostly failed) to repurpose Chandler and Hammett into different eras.
Next up: Alessandro Piperno’s The Worst Intentions, which, after reading about 40% of the book, I would call an Italian version of Portnoy’s Complaint.