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?