Jonathan Lethem’s previous novels employ the conventions of popular culture to comment on the mores of his time. GIRL IN LANDSCAPE combines science fiction with a Western theme as Pella Marsh, her failed politician father, and her two younger brothers leave Brooklyn for the Planet of the Archbuilders where they join a small group of Americans intent upon carving out a civilization in a desolate landscape.
While Pella learns to appreciate the strange inhabitants of her new planet, she encounters an antagonist in Efram Nugent, the first American settler there. Efram accuses others of sexual crimes and misdemeanors, and Pella senses a sexual tension between herself and the enigmatic older man. She sees Efram as a threat to the world her father and the others are trying to create and especially to the native Archbuilders, but she is also drawn toward his rugged individuality. Pella is torn between admiring Efram and wanting to destroy him.
In his hostility toward the Archbuilders, Efram recalls the racism of Ethan Edwards, the John Wayne character in John Ford’s classic Western THE SEARCHERS (1956). In his undisguised lust for Pella, he resembles Humbert Humbert in Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA (1955). Part of the fun of GIRL IN LANDSCAPE is spotting Lethem’s literary and popular culture allusions and the numerous direct and indirect influences on the novel.
While stylistically playful, Lethem has some serious observations about the nature of conformity and individuality, about the conflict between the wilderness and civilization, and about the ambiguous complexity of most human motivations. GIRL IN LANDSCAPE is a compelling addition to the work of a distinctive American writer.
Sources for Further Study
Atlanta Journal-Constitution. April 12, 1998, p. K10.
Booklist. XCIV, March 15, 1998, p. 1207.
Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, February 1, 1998, p. 139.
Library Journal. CXXIII, April 1, 1998, p. 123.
Los Angeles Times. April 8, 1998, p. E6.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, May 24, 1998, p. 21.
The New Yorker. LXXIV, April 20, 1998, p. 22.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, March 30, 1998, p. 50.
Science Fiction Studies. XXV, July, 1998, p. 225.
USA Today. June 25, 1998, p. D6.