chronic city (jonathan lethem)*
CHALLENGER: gun, with occasional music (jonathan lethem)

a THUNDERTOME first: man versus himself! in this case, it's genre-bending young california-lethem (gun, with occasional music), back from the early nineties to do battle with contemporary, supercelebrated brooklyn-lethem for...control of the future? mastery of the past? the sci-fi imagery folds in on itself a bit, but we can be fairly sure at least one of them is a robot.

i first met california-lethem at solar light books, a basement joint in san francisco at which i hustled new age workbooks from beneath leaks in the ceiling and listened to old elvis costello albums for the first few months after graduating from college.** he was the owner's favorite author, which gave me the impression that his was a niche within a niche within a niche; amanda had particular tastes, to put it mildly. gun is indeed a quirky novel, but it's a novel with a little something for everyone rather than a lot for a few (except for amanda, that is). "evolved" animals walk, talk, shoot, and deliver sandwiches! sloppily-evolved babies give everyone the creeps and hang out in cracked-out bars! the government issues cards with karma that can land you in cryogenic prison if you anger the police-inquisitors or have the nerve to ask questions, and it also encourages you to snort soma-like "make!" news radio is music rather than language! people live in oakland intentionally! it's a bit much to take in at once; most of lethem's sci-fi flourishes fit together by the end of the novel, but a few (the titular music, for instance) flap in the breeze at the others' expense. i imagine a first-time novelist would be tempted to use every trick at his disposal, but a seasoned editor might have encouraged him to stick to his favorites. i'm also less than wild about lethem's first attempt at noir; mimicking raymond chandler is dangerous, for anything other than perfect pitch is wildly unflattering to the mimic. 1999's motherless brooklyn, lethem's second detective novel, is considerably more satisfying; half a dozen books later, lethem's PI is his PI, not philip marlowe lite. that said, the second section of the book (which takes place six years after the first) is as focused as the first section was manic: it's spare, overexposed, and sorrowful, and the low notes lethem hits at the end of his story do sound a bit like chandler. i was rooting for him by then, and i'm glad to know what i do of the work that was to come. is to come? damn robots, messing with my concepts of time.

VICTOR: chronic city. gun, with occasional music is a much cooler title, but lethem circa 2009 has had much more practice.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

speaking of influences, lethem lo-o-oves philip k. dick (do androids dream of electric sheep?, &c). if you're familiar with both authors, how dick...ish(?) was gun for you?

02 speaking of philip k. dick, if you were on your way to the airport and saw rutger hauer sitting in a starbucks, would you point him out to your companion, even if you guys were running a little late?

03 if you were rutger hauer, what would you order at starbucks?

04 cool titles: which stand out for you? (as she climbed across the table, another lethem title, has a nice ring to it as well.)

*previous battle here.

**the owner wavered on hiring me when she found out i'd once worked for borders, but my pierced eyebrow convinced her that my intentions were good. yes, a facial piercing once got me a job.


jacob said...

01 well, it's been awhile since i read GWOM, but lethem is clearly a better sentence-by-sentence writer than dick, who everyone (including lethem) admits was uneven. however, it's tough to be more bleak or disorienting than philip k. dick, and lethem's just a bit lighter and more willing to lean "absurd" rather than "devastating." one book that's stylistically different from most of dick's work but very good is "the man in the high castle," which is one of the best and creepiest revisionist WWII books i've read.

03 i'm partial to iris murdoch's 'the sacred and profane love machine.'

kidchamp said...

i think you've mentioned "the man in the high castle" before, jacob - i'll hunt it down. how many revisionist WWII books have you read, incidentally?

on dick and bleakness, the "sheep" scene in which pris pulls the legs from a spider sticks in my head as one of the most horrifying bits of sci fi i've ever read. that probably says more about my weird animal issues than it does about the scene, but...there it is.

on the absurdism-bleakness spectrum, would it be fair to say lethem falls between pynchon and dick?

Milkmaid's dumb friend said...

03: About a thousand Chicken Santa Fe Panino.

04: The Bookseller /Diagram prize for oddest title of the year has a few memorable titles. My favorites are Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice and Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers. Everyone else’s favorite seems to be The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories. (Hard to argue with that; I don’t think I’d care to own a regular-sized book of said stories if it came down to it.) But for my money Aristophanes has the best titles—like Clouds, Frogs, or Wasps—where he just names the play after whatever random thing he has singing the chorus.

kidchamp said...

i'm with you and aristophanes, MDF, and will call the great gatsby "nick" for the foreseeable future in solidarity. bless you, incidentally, for addressing the rutger hauer question.

i bought a norton edition of the age of innocence at barnes and noble last week. "i've always wanted to read that," said the clerk. "me too," i replied. "i've only read house of mirth." "it's just such a good title," said he.