Book Report: Gun, With Occasional Music (with bonus blather about Amnesia Moon, and with homework)

This weekend I read Gun, With Occasional Music, one of Jonathan Lethem’s genre fiction novels, before he got all award-winning and respectable. It doesn’t just mimic one genre, it’s both a Raymond Chander detective novel as well as a dystopian science fiction novel. It’s pretty entertaining, but I found it much less substantial than than Amnesia Moon, which was published the following year.

The structure, style, dialogue, and overall worldview couldn’t be a bigger Chandler rip-off without actually just calling the hero “Phillip Marlowe” (nb, see Lethem on plagarism). Except that that the actual mystery wasn’t that good; the clues were clunky enough that I had it figured out halfway through, and I’m pretty dense when it comes to mysteries, guessing right up to the end.

I thought the technique of setting the first chunk of the novel in the future, having a bunch of time elapse, and then setting the second chunk six years later was an effective technique, giving this science-fiction-within-science-fiction effect. (I don’t read much sci-fi, so maybe it’s actually a hackneyed idiom that’s just new to me).

One small-ish detail late in the book resonated with me. In the novel, the future police state encourages heavy drug use to keep the populace under control, and the standard issue mixture is largely composed of “Forgettol” (which does what it sounds like). But memory is occasionally necessary, so people have these small devices, which they refer to when they need to remember something. The devices speak in the person’s own voice, but give a notably rosy version of past events. The main character thinks

I was beginning to get it. Memory was permissible when it was externalized, and rigorously edited. That left you with more room in your head for the latest pop tune— which was sure to be coming out of the nearest water fountain or cigarette machine.

It hit home because I’ve sort of come to depend on this blog to actually remember when and what happened in my life. But at the same it’s such a tiny sliver of the whole story: I don’t get it all down from a lack of gumption or time to write, or I intentionally edit out things because they’re about other people or I just don’t want anybody to see it or I don’t want my account to live beyond my ability to control it. Not to mention the inherent limitations of language and medium: the Tao that can be blogged is not the eternal Tao.

Anyway…. the novel was published in 1994, well before blogs and digital cameras and cheap tiny video cameras and infinite storage and the Internet (yeah, it existed, but you couldn’t depend on it to find almost anything you wanted to know). So it struck me as pretty prescient and disturbing— people with no on-board memory are a pretty pathetic lot. (And yeah, it’s a dystopian reductio ad absurdum, and no, things will probably never go to that extreme, but the possibility is worth considering if only to galvanize the feeling that things shouldn’t go to that extreme).

As I mentioned earlier, while Gun, With Occasional Music is pretty entertaining, I don’t think it’s nearly as good as Amnesia Moon. Part of why I love Amnesia Moon is that it rips off Philip K. Dick, even down to the way that the premise seems to turn inside out after almost every chapter as in the better Dick novels. What really knocks me out about it is that it conveys things that I just can’t imagine being conveyed nearly as beautifully or precisely or convincingly in anything other than a science fiction novel. And it’s not some bogus crap about aliens or robots or New World Orders: I think he’s talking about things that are central to the human experience and timeless, and paradoxically also completely of the zeitgeist.

Anything else that I have to say will sound even stupider unless you’ve read it. So go, read it, and come back and let me know when you have, and then we can talk about it. OK?

Farmer’s Daughter photos

I feel like I only sort of conveyed in words how cute and cool the Farmer’s Daughter, the hotel we stayed at in LA, was. So here are a few more photos. Also, I feel like going to sleep tonight thinking more about our California vacation than about my NYC trips.

Farmer's Daughter

Farmer's Daughter exterior

Terri in front of Farmer's Daughter inner parking lot

Farmer's Daughter courtyard

And speaking of environmental hypocrisy…

We ended up renting a small SUV, a Chrysler Pacifica, when we were in California. The rental place claimed to be entirely out of anything smaller (it was 2am, so it’s plausible). The rental place said it got 26 mpg highway, so we chose it over the Chrysler 300 which was smaller but only got 24. But we did some highway driving between Santa Barabara and LA, and the best we did was 16. That said, it was pretty fun to drive. You could actually, like, accelerate, and go up hills.

Deval Patrick proposes green line extension delay

Catching up on the local news now that I’m back, Universal Hub pointed out last week that Deval Patrick has proposed delaying the Somerville green line extension another two years. Given that this was one of the projects related to the central artery project, thrown as a bone to the non-car-commuting segments of the state, this is sort of a big disappointment, and you can tell Governor Patrick what you think here. Mayor Joe, naturally, expressed disappointment.

On the Acela back to Boston

Terri on the acela, posted from the acelaYears of practice of shoving to the front of the stage at indie rock shows with her camera have honed Terri’s ability to push to the front of any crowd. She managed to do the same while we were waiting for the 7pm Acela Express to Boston from New York, the last express of the day, and got us some of the last two seats together. We sat down early and watched the other people walk down the aisles and look glumly down the car.

I went into the cafe car just after Stamford CT to get a hot dog and a beer. The cafe car was full of about a dozen Massachusets firefighters in full dress uniforms, well on their way to being plastered. One of them had spilled his beer, and with some drunken incompetence was rubbing some paper towels back and forth about a foot to the right of the spill. They were having a good time and were pretty funny, though. The conductor looked like he was trying to gauge whether or not he should try to ask them to take some seats or stop drinking or just leave them alone. He decided to leave them alone and left the car, but a few minutes later came back and said “hey, boys, the Sox just won 11-3!”. They all cheered and one of them yelled “that means the conductah buys the next round!” They all laughed. The conductor sort of laughed and got out of the car as fast as he could.

After I got my hot dog, I went back to my seat and mentioned it to Terri and said “OH! They must have been in town for the funeral!” Apparently, she had been walking around Manhattan earlier that day and near St. Paul’s walked through a big funeral parade for a firefighter who died in action last week.

Later, behind us, a woman got on her cell phone and said “I’m going to be getting in in about a half hour.” She started to cry. “All I am going to want to do is come over and cry. Is that OK?”. The person on the other end seemed to answer in the affirmative and was greeted with more sobs. “OK, I’ll see you then.”

People gripe about the Acela, its delays, the Northeast’s aging track infrastructure keeping it from fulfilling its promise of lightning-fast rail service down the East Coast. But I’ve taken it 4 times in the last 6 weeks, and it’s been stellar each time. Comfortable, New York to Boston in 3.5 hours, no going through security, no getting a cab from airports to downtowns, power outlets, legroom, and the occasional adventure.

Manhattan, Brooklyn, Somerville

Chrysler building in the hazeThere are times when I think Boston is too expensive, too crowded, too full of East Coast angst, too fast, and I feel like bagging it all for somewhere where there are hills where there are trees and space and things are cheap and pretty and you can smell trees.

But now I work at a company whose headquarters is in NYC. All the people I’ve been crammed in an office with, roughly three to a desk, all live in tiny upper west side apartments they basically can never hope to afford. As Terri and I were walking up the hill home from the Davis Square T stop last night, I remembered: I have a yard, I have hedges, I have trees. It puts things in perspective.

If I lived in New York, I don’t know where I would live. The village is crawling with stockbrokers: it just isn’t what it was 50 years ago. It isn’t even what it was 30 years ago. Brooklyn is the most like Somerville, but there’s just something more nauseating about Brooklyn hipsters than there is about Somerville hipsters. Maybe it’s just the sheer concentration of them.

I walked around Davis Square today while Terri was getting her prescriptions refilled just in case the transition to new healthcare leaves us without insurance for a couple of weeks. I got a burrito at Anna’s Taqueria and it felt like home.

The end of the road

Thanks to all who expressed concern over the black toe. It is now quite healed. In fact, what I feared most, that I would be all limpy and incapacitated for Matt’s wedding last weekend, did not come to pass, and I was in good enough shape by Saturday that I could take my shoes off and enjoy the beach in Santa Barbara at the pre-wedding beach party.

Terri and I had a great time in LA for a couple of days before the wedding. We stayed at this really great and reasonably priced (at least by the yardstick of the dinky yet obscenely expensive places I’ve been staying in Manhattan) motel called the Farmer’s Daughter in Hollywood across from the CBS studios. It was like someone took an old school standard motel, decorated it with about a dozen really clever ideas around the farm theme, attached a pretty good restaurant, and added all these clever touches (like a key-card sleeve that folded out to be a map of LA).

We also took a trip down to Long Beach to visit my cousins who live there, who have been visiting the family in Pennsylvania my whole life, but whom I’d never seen on their home turf. They were happy to show us around town, and took us to the awesome aquarium in Long Beach, and even invited us along to a farewell dinner for a coworker who was moving on to a new job (where we saw a sea lion in the wild in the marina just outside the restaurant).

Saturday we picked up a bunch of stuff at Matt’s apartment (since a series of unfortunate events ended with our renting an SUV, we figured we might as well use it for the benefit of the wedding festivities’ logistics) and drove up to Santa Barbara, which was gorgeous. The beach party was fun, and we got to see Sarah, who despite large lacunae in our communications over the years, is one of my oldest friends whom I still consider friend (if that’s not too weird a category).

And the wedding on Sunday was great, and I might write about it later since I don’t think I can do justice to it now.

And then I came back to NYC for more of the new job, at the headquarters. This time, I’m at a different hotel. This one didn’t try to break my toe, but it did manage to catch on fire.

Terri came down today to spend a couple of days here, too. We tried to go to a free Camera Obscura at a record shop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, tonight but the lounge area of the shop was just so hot and jampacked with hundreds of sweaty hipsters, so we just did some record shopping, and went and grabbed some food. The Camera Obscura show at Great Scott in Boston where we were about two feet away from the band would have been hard to beat, anyhow.

Tomorrow I go home, and I can’t wait to actually sleep in my own bed, with a cat curling up on my chest.

The beach be one of the best things we got

I’m on the Acela back to Boston. We just passed a beach full of people in Rhode Island. Or maybe it’s still Connecticut. Which reminded me to stop thinking about work and start thinking about Matt Shaw’s upcoming wedding! I have not sung him and Patsy the wedding week song yet!!! Glaring oversight!!! Hopefully Terri is, right now, as I write, renting a convertible.

Anyway, Matt Shaw, and Patsy,

Wedding week, Wedding week!
Wedding week, Wedding week.
You are getting married…
Wedding week!