Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Book Review: Jonathan Lethem

Two lesser-known books by Jonathan Lethem, author of Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude.

Gun, With Occasional Music
Harvest Books, 2003 (reprint; originally published 1994)
Paperback, 271 pages

Fans of Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick will enjoy this hard-boiled science-fiction story. The novel is told in the first person by a Marlowe-type detective, Conrad Metcalf, who gumshoes his way around a futuristic East Bay, California. To solve his case, Metcalf must navigate the usual obstacles (femme fatales, bent cops) as well as some new ones: designer pharmaceuticals, animals who've evolved the capacity for speech, and the comically disturbing "babyheads," about which let me say no more. The prose is occasionally uneven, but this seems intentional, part of the narrator's actual voice (and a spoof on genre dialogue). The plot sometimes meanders, but no more than in Chandler, and again this seemed intentional. As in Chandler, the atmosphere is so rich you don't mind taking the long way round.

The Disappointment Artist: Essays
Vintage, 2006
Paperback, 160 pages

This short book of autobiographical essays is worth reading if you're a student of Lethem, or if you share his enthusiasms (such as comic books or Philip K. Dick). The confessional style hit me over the head a few too many times. I also have to admit that I seldom enjoyed teenaged Jonathan's company. By the end, however, the author's adolescent frailties came more subtly and sympathetically into focus in relation to his mother's death---a tragic death, from brain cancer, when Lethem was just 13.

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