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:

‘Angwine’s got a problem. His future’s all used up. I’d hate to see that happen to a dickface like you.’

I turned to Kornfeld, who still hadn’t cracked a smile. ‘Do I have a dick on my face? Tell me honestly.’

‘You better cancel the fancy punctuation, dickface,’ said Morgenlander blithely. ‘Your licence is a piss mark in the snow, as far as I’m concerned.’ He adjusted his tie, as if his head were expanding and he needed to make some room for it. ‘Now tell Inquisitor Kornfeld about your trip to the doctor.’

‘I’m seeing a specialist,’ I said. ‘To see if I can have the dick on my face removed.’

This is played almost as cool as, if dirtier than, the following scene in Playback:

‘Don’t get funny with me buster, I get annoyed rather easy.’

‘Fine. Let’s watch you get annoyed. What do you do – bite your moustache?’

‘I ain’t got no moustache, stupid.’

‘You could grow one. I can wait.’

Metcalf’s banter may be nearly as sharp as Marlowe’s, but he’s more self-conscious about his use of imagery. In the course of his inquisition he goes to see Stanhunt’s fellow urologist, Grover Testafer. At the house he meets the doctor’s lover, an evolved sheep called Dulcie. ‘“Okay,” I said. “You’re afraid of somebody and you don’t want to talk. That’s fine. I’m a patient guy, believe it or not. This carpet’s big, but it’s not all tacked down as neatly as you and Testafer. We’ll find out what’s been swept underneath.” I congratulated myself on the metaphor.’ He’s so pleased with it, in fact, that he uses it again on more than one occasion. The language games don’t stop there: Metcalf buys his paper, ‘an evening edition of the Oakland Photographic’, from ‘a crabby old goat working a news-stand’ – it takes a moment to realise he doesn’t mean a goat-like old man but a real goat. And Lethem doesn’t play this trick only with his own non-metaphors: his epigraph takes on a new relevance when Metcalf crosses paths with a violent scooter-riding evolved kangaroo called Joey Shand – the literary begins to break down in the face of the literal.

The Chandleresque and the metaphor-play aren’t just so much Post-Modern cleverness. The final fifth of the book, Part Two, is set ‘six years later’. At the end of Part One, Metcalf, like a good Marlovian, gets on the wrong side of the official Inquisition once too often – ‘Welcome to the world of the karma-defunct, Metcalf. Get your coat’ – and is hauled down to the freezer. ‘It was short, but it wasn’t sweet. I woke up feeling like I still needed the night’s sleep I’d missed when Kornfeld took me in … I wanted to feel intuitively that six years had passed, but the feeling wasn’t there.’ On his way out, the inquisitor at the desk gives him not only what was taken off him on the way in, but a fresh karma-card with 75 points on it and an envelope of make. He’s met outside the Office by Walter Surface, a private eye hired by Stanhunt after Metcalf cried off the case. Metcalf sought him out in Part One for a spot of information sharing; now he’s waiting to give Metcalf some friendly advice, including telling him to stay off the make: ‘There are no individual blends anymore. Just standard issue … Time-release Forgettol, mostly … Snort it if you like – just make sure you write your name and address on a matchbook cover first. In big letters.’ The new breed of addict needs more than a matchbox. Each has an artificial memory, external and electronic, a device that looks ‘like a pocket calculator with a microphone’ (it’s one of the few machines that doesn’t play a little tune when it’s used, unlike the gun of the novel’s title). ‘Memory was permissible when it was externalised, and rigorously edited. That left you with more time in your head for the latest pop tune – which was sure to be coming out of the nearest water fountain or cigarette machine.’ The recorded voice of the memory is its owner’s, but it’s not clear who’s responsible for making the memories, and they often don’t tally with what Metcalf remembers. ‘You ought to use a memory,’ Pansy Greenleaf, a friend of Mrs Stanhunt’s, tells him.

‘I have the new kind of memory,’ I said. ‘It’s a cranial implant. You don’t have to speak out loud. You just think, and it talks to you in a quiet little voice in your head.’

‘Oh,’ she said. She thought about that for a minute. ‘It sounds very convenient.’

The erasure of the individual memory is the final stage in a process that began with the elimination of the public record, of newspapers and books. Lethem’s dystopia is a version of the end of history. And in this context, the homage to Chandler becomes a way of forging links with the past.

The ‘evolved’ animals are a manifestation of pastlessness. They haven’t in fact evolved at all: their humanoid characteristics have not been acquired over generations in response to changing environments, but have been zealously and inappropriately forced on them. They are genetically marooned: Joey Shand’s grotesqueness is due in part to the number of missing links between him and kangaroos as we know them. Even more grotesque than the animals are the babyheads, another innovation of Dr Twostrand’s: small children with adult brains.

The door opened a crack and a babyhead looked up at me from behind it, his distended bald head gleaming with reflections from the bar-room behind him. He was dressed in a toddler’s red jumper with a little embroidered yellow fish on the chest, and he had a cigarette tucked behind his ear … ‘ID, pal. You look over-age to me’ … The place was lousy with babyheads, more than I’d ever seen in one place at a time, more than I really wanted to believe existed.

The juxtaposition of fish and fag may not be the subtlest tool in the box, but it’s more than compensated for by that ‘lousy with babyheads’. And they are horrible.

Whatever underlying seriousness there may be in the novel – about the importance of knowing where we’ve come from if we are to know where we are – doesn’t drag on the narrative; it’s ballast rather than weed choking the propeller: the book is a smart, funny, fast-paced thriller, even if there are too many (i.e. any) sentences of the ‘I had an awful sense of foreboding going up in the elevator’ variety. One of the reasons it doesn’t drag is that the plot hinges on the importance of a recoverable past; to say how would of course spoil it.

Gun, with Occasional Music’s resurrection by Faber (it was first published in the UK six years ago, but went more or less unnoticed) follows on the success of Motherless Brooklyn (1999), which they published in 2000. Earlier this year, As She Climbed across the Table (US, 1997) came out. It’s a variant on the California campus novel. The narrator, Philip Engstrand, is an anthropologist who studies physicists. His girlfriend, Alice Coombs, is a physicist who falls in love with a void produced under laboratory conditions and known as Lack. To have as a narrator a non-scientist interested in scientists is a nifty way of skirting round the usual problems that confront novels about science while at the same time bringing them to the reader’s attention. As She Climbed across the Table also offers an intriguing take on the view from nowhere. Lethem is unfazed by the non-problem of how a first-person narrative might plausibly constitute an authentic document within its own fictional world: his stories don’t pose as letters or diaries; his narrators aren’t aware that they’re writing novels. In Gun, with Occasional Music, we are reading not Conrad Metcalf’s memoirs but his memory.

Motherless Brooklyn’s territory is similar to that of Gun, with Occasional Music, inasmuch as the narrator is a private detective and the source of the style is hard-boiled. Motherless Brooklyn is the more sure-footed book, however: the style is securely Lethem’s own, rather than respectful pastiche; since the setting is present-day New York, a real place now, Lethem’s imagination can’t fall back on evolved kangaroos and babyheads. He tells his story from the point of view of a Tourettic orphan called Lionel Essrog, ‘the human freakshow’, who works for a fourth-rate detective agency disguised as a taxi firm. His boss, Frank Minna, then a small-time fence, recruited Lionel and three others from the St Vincent’s Home for Boys when they were teenagers, and predictably enough became a father-figure to them, even though he was only ten years or so older. He is murdered in the opening chapter, orphaning them all for a second time. In order to find out why he was killed, Lionel needs to investigate far back into Minna’s past. His own beginnings remain a mystery: one of his compulsions is to phone up the three Essrogs listed in the phone book, but all he can bring himself to say is ‘Eat me, Bailey’ – one of his most persistent verbal tics. And Murray Essrog, whoever he may be, knows Lionel only as ‘that goddamned Bailey kid’. We never find out who ‘Bailey’ may have been, if anyone, or where Lionel comes from; his urge to unearth Minna’s past is in part a need to compensate for his own lack of one. Motherless Brooklyn, Lethem’s richest novel, is, then, like its predecessor, concerned with the importance of knowing where you’ve come from; and one of the pleasures of reading Gun, with Occasional Music now derives from looking into one of the pasts of Motherless Brooklyn.