GIRL IN LANDSCAPE
by Jonathan Lethem
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jonathan Lethem has always drawn from disparate sources for his novels, from the Chandleresque Gun, With Occasional Music to the Lewis Carroll influenced As She Climbed Across the Table. His latest, Girl in Landscape, perhaps demonstrates best the far-ranging influences on his writing. At first glance, Girl in Landscape seems to be the most purely science fictional of Lethem's four novels. However, it quickly becomes apparent that Lethem is using the science fictional trappings in much the way Kurt Vonnegut used the them in such novels as The Sirens of Titan.
The novel begins in a future Brooklyn in which pollution has gotten so bad the residents must live indoors, reminiscent of Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel. In honor of their family's decision to leave earth for the Planet of the Archbuilders, Caitlin Marsh takes her three children to Coney Island to reminisce about the days when she was able to go their without the protective clothing her children must wear.
The novel doesn't really pick up until the Marsh family arrives at the Planet of the Archbuilders. Lethem designs the planet so it is reminiscent of a John Ford western (most notably "The Searchers" ). The Marshes have settled in a sparsely populated area on the verge of becoming a town. Although the "town" only consists of four families (only two of which are "traditional") and five individuals, the population runs the gamut from politicians to anthropologists to loners to drunkards: a microcosm in twenty people. In addition to the humans, the planet is settled by the Archbuilders, the remnants of a race which has fallen from its glory days who can be seen as Lethem's version of the the American Indian.
Once on the Planet of the Archbuilders, the fragmentation of the Marsh family reveals itself. Clement Marsh, grief-stricken by his loss of an Earth-election shortly before the family migrated and his wife's death, ignores his children, allowing them to run free across the planet's landscape. In dealing with his own grief, he ignores the needs of Pella, Raymond and David. Lethem is most concerned with Clement's eldest, his daughter, Pella. Girl in Landscape, is a coming of age story focusing on Pella's relationship with Clement, Efram Nugent and, most importantly, the planet to which she has been taken against her own desires.
Clement, a failed politician, is nearly a polar opposite to Efram Nugent, a loner with very specific ideas about the world he wants to live in (and on). Pella finds herself drawn to both of them. Clement represents her childhood and the past she was forced to leave behind. Efram represents adulthood and the future on the Planet of the Archbuilders. At the same time she is drawn to them, Pella feels the need to rebel against both men. She only sees weakness in her father who is bereft of both his career and his wife. Efram shows intolerance against the planet in which Pella is trying to make her home.
Along with the physical descriptions, Efram's character is the most obvious tribute to John Ford. The character is reminiscent of John Wayne's Ethan Edwards from "The Searchers." Even the character's name demonstrates Lethem's debt (the screenplay for "The Searchers" was written by Frank S. Nugent). Like Lethem, Efram knows more about the Planet of the Archbuilders than he is willing to let the rest of the characters (or, in the case of Lethem, the readers) know. Part of the mystery of the novel is why Efram hates the Archbuilders so much and what has happened to their culture to leave the remaining Archbuilders in their current position.
There is much about both the planet and the aliens that Lethem chooses not to reveal. Nevertheless, the reader is left with the impression that the Archbuilders have a full and complete, if tragic, history. In addition to the Archbuilders, Lethem has also populated the planet with a strange race of semi-sentient (?) creatures known as house-deer. At first these creatures seem completely innocuous. As the novel moves on, their role on the planet is expanded, although never made particularly clear. Despite eliding over the alien's physiognomy Lethem has demonstrated that he can build an alien race in such a manner that the reader is left wanting to see what else Lethem can do with his aliens.
Jonathan Lethem is one of the authors for whom science fiction is an inadequate label. His stories may appear in the science fiction magazines such as Asimov's, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Interzone and his novels shelves in the science fiction sections of bookstores, but he, more than any other modern author, fulfills the promise of the phrase "speculative fiction."
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