On the Make

Thomas Jones

  • Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
    Faber, 262 pp, £5.99, August 2001, ISBN 0 571 20959 9

Jonathan Lethem’s first novel is set at an indeterminate time in the not too distant future. The United States – and possibly the whole world – is now run by the Inquisition, also known as the Office. You need a licence to ask questions. Everyone has to carry a card which registers how much ‘karma’ they have: the level can be increased or reduced at the discretion of an Office inquisitor – once it drops below zero, you’re taken off to the deep freeze. Narcotics are freely available courtesy of the state: you just pop down to the ‘makery’ for your preferred blend of Addictol, Forgettol, Regrettol, Believol, Acceptol, Avoidol. Thanks to the pioneering genetic work of Dr Twostrand, ‘evolved’ animals are almost like people: they talk, wear clothes and walk on two legs – but they still look like animals and are treated as second-class citizens. Newspapers consist of ‘the usual captionless pictures of the government busy at work’.

The mise-en-scène may be modest science fiction, but the mode is self-conscious post-Chandler noir. The narrator is Conrad Metcalf, a down-at-heel private eye – the ‘I’ in this case standing not for ‘investigator’ but ‘inquisitor’ – with low karma, less cash and an unhealthy make habit. His sex life has been sabotaged by an ex-girlfriend called Delia Limetree: they had ‘one of those theoretically temporary operations where they switch your nerve endings around with someone else, so you can see what it feels like to be a man if you’re a woman, a woman if you’re a man. It was supposed to be a lot of fun. It was, until she disappeared before we could have the operation reversed.’ Metcalf shares a waiting room with a dentist who’s almost as short of clients as he is: ‘the waiting room was empty, except for a pair of evolved rabbits in miniature three-piece suits … Someone had to clean their bridgework, I guess, and my dentist wasn’t doing so well he could afford to turn away their business.’

As the story opens Metcalf has recently abandoned a case. He had been working for a urologist called Maynard Stanhunt who wanted his wife followed; Metcalf quit when the doctor asked him to beat her up. And then Stanhunt turns up murdered in a dingy motel and the prime suspect, ‘a big, sheepish-looking kid with a little voice’ called Orton Angwine, comes to Metcalf for help. As the dentist tells him, ‘there’s a man in the waiting room who doesn’t want his teeth cleaned.’

The novel’s epigraph is from Playback – ‘There was nothing to it. The Super Chief was on time, as it almost always is, and the subject was as easy to spot as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket’ – and with admirable self-assurance, Lethem adopts Chandler’s style, from the fearless tough-guy repartee to the extended metaphors that stop a straw short of breaking the evolved camel’s back. It isn’t long before a pair of inquisitors from the Office, Morgenlander and Kornfeld, pay Metcalf a visit to warn him off the case:

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