Lethem on Chandler
And he's just also such a beautiful writer. The secret of Chandler is that he's really very romantic. Behind all that ennui there's this enormous yearning that causes him to reach, in this very precarious way, for all sorts of beautiful phrases and unlikely poetic comparisons. And then he's always making fun of himself for doing it at the same time. That's why writers obsess over Chandler--because he's found a way to have his lyricism and make fun of it at the same time.
So, yeah, he gets it, and in Gun, with Occasional Music, he's proven that he gets it.*
Conrad Metcalf is a private inquisitor in a world where questions have all the political correctness of the N-word. Here, Celeste Stanhunt, wife of the murder victim, is talking to Metcalf:
"I've answered enough questions today to last a lifetime. Let's see some identification, or I'm calling in the heat."
"The heat?" I smiled. "That's ugly talk."
"You're using a lot of ugly punctuation." She stuck out a hand. "Let's see it, tough boy."
It's an interesting world, not immediately recognizable as a dystopia. One of the beauties of the novel is the way it sneaks up on you like a revelation, exactly how dystopian this place is. The written word is all but extinct, and the spoken word is endangered. Morning news on the radio consists of mood music: the listener must intuit local and world events by the flavor of orchestration. Television news consists of clipped images -- politicians smiling, shaking hands, kissing babies. Nearly everyone uses drugs (with names like Forgettol, Regrettol, Addictol) and, guess what, this junk is free courtesy of the government. As time passes, what at first seemed quirky becomes, by turns, ominous, and then outright nightmarish.
That's why I had my doubts about Gun early on. At first it seemed that Lethem's approach to Chandler was a sort of novel-sized Mad Lib. For cops, substitute Public Inquisitors; for rye whiskey, substitute make (the individual's personal blend of drugs; Metcalf's is "skewed heavily towards Acceptol, with just a touch of Regrettol to provide that bittersweet edge, and enough addictol to keep me craving it even in my darkest moments.") For the lower class -- ubiquitous in Chandler's work -- substitute evolved animals. There's a kangaroo here you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley.
But things change. The mystery unfolds as it deepens, time passes, caprice becomes meaning. The author has a plan, but I won't spoil it by telling you. Trust me, trust Lethem.
Gun was Lethem's first novel, so in fairness we should compare it to The Big Sleep. Like The Big Sleep, the mystery in Gun is, ultimately, a secondary concern. You could quibble over it, but you should bear in mind a much-repeated (and possibly apocryphal) story about Chandler. Humphrey Bogart (Marlowe in the first film version of The Big Sleep) and director Howard Hawks got into an argument over who killed the chauffeur -- or was it suicide? Chandler replied that he didn't know, either. (In another version of the story, it was Jack Warner who telegrammed Chandler with the question. When Chandler couldn't answer it, Warner billed him 75 cents for the telegram.) Point being, if you're here for the mystery, then you're no fun at all.
Post script: My patient didn't do well. Laryngectomy, fistula, recurrence, sepsis. "Piss-poor protoplasm" is how docs put it when we're around each other and have to wear our stony faces. He had no family, no friends. When he died in the 10th Floor step-down ICU, I was Intern On-Call, and I had to come to his bedside to pronounce him dead, and I was probably the only one in the hospital who gave a damn about him. Some of you might say, "He would have liked it that way," but I think he would have preferred not being dead. That would have been my choice.
*Those of you who read this blog regularly may be wondering if I'm incapable of giving a bad review. That I leave all the snarkiness to my wife -- the classic good cop, bad cop. Maybe you're even wondering if I love everything I read, and that I would wax poetic over the ingredients list of Safeway's Very Maple cookies.
But I don't.
What's the point in trash-talking a book, no matter how elegant, logical, and/or humorous that trash-talk may be? Do you really need to know that I sped-read Chris Roberson's Here, There & Everywhere last night, and now I want my money back? Or that I gave up on Brin's Kiln People in less than one hundred pages because he can't control his damned exclamation points? No. You don't need to know that. And you won't find snark like that on these electronic pages.