In a fight with a kangaroo Iƒ?TMll take surprise, thanks

By Gesse Stark-Smith

I bought Gun, with Occasional Music because I’d already read and enjoyed some Jonathan Lethem novels and, well, because it has a poetic title and a very attractive front cover. Then it sat on my desk for a couple of weeks with periodic interruptions when I would I pick it up, skim the back and think: “A hard-boiled detective novel featuring a kangaroo set in near-future Oakland? Do I have to? I already read about a Mafioso with Tourette syndrome (in Motherless Brooklyn) isn’t that enough?”

Of course, what I should have remembered was that I loved that Mafioso with Tourette syndrome and that though some of Lethem’s novels (particularly the early ones, and Gun is his first) may appear gimmicky at first glance he is a skillful enough writer to make them work and work well.
Lethem describing himself has said, “in a neutral sense, I’ve always been an extremely contrived writer. My work has been concept-heavy.” This is not an impediment to his expression but rather facilitates the richness of meaning and stylistic flair found throughout his books. As he has noted, “The emotion and the passion in my early books is embedded in metaphor and symbols. It’s not allegorical, but it has the flavor of allegory because everything is embedded with meaning.”

Gun, with Occasional Music is full of metaphors and analogies, both the big range allegorical creation of wider meaning kind and the hilarious Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hamett off the wall kind. It is studded with gems such as: “Cold turkey was a merry-go-round I couldn’t get off, and instead of a wooden horse I was riding a porcupine.” The novel is both a satire and an example of this genre and it is so thick with style that you would need a serrated knife to cut through it.
I, for one, love this stylistic saturation. I liked the content and plot, sure, but, honestly, the exact plot of this novel isn’t what I remember, instead, I walk around trying to pretend that I’m very film noir and saying things like “I was playing it existential, and maybe a bit stupid, but it was the only way I knew how to play it.” And I’m still waiting for the perfect moment when “there was rain in my collar and I needed a sandwich” perfectly describes how I’m feeling.

Lethem, more than most modern writers, embraces his influences and feels free to meld genres. Also, he’s smart and funny. The result is worth reading for the issues he raises and the twists of the story, but if that’s what you’re really interested in read Fortress of Solitude his more recent novel about (among other things) growing up, art and race. If, instead, your interested in atmosphere and trying to pretend you’re a badass I might loan you Gun, with Occasional Music (but I’m writing my name in it first, so you’ll have to give it back).