Girl in Landscape

by Jonathan Lethem

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Girl in Landscape

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 330

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.

Girl in Landscape

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1787

Jonathan Lethem’s fourth novel could easily be mistaken for a feminist tract, for a parable about racism, for a satirical view of childhood and family relations, or for a genre spoof. Unsympathetic readers might see it as a mishmash of conflicting influences. Yet Girl in Landscape is much more than any of this. It is a highly original treatment of several traditional themes in American literature and popular culture. Though it recalls several other works, it is finally a distinctive achievement on its own that unifies all of its themes with a brilliant, disturbing conclusion.

The Marsh family leaves Earth after some ecological disaster that Lethem leaves suggestively vague, but their main motive is the disgraced father, Clement, a New York politician who has failed in his efforts to create a more livable city. Caitlin Marsh is enthusiastic about the new adventure, reading to Pella, thirteen, Raymond, ten, and David, seven, about the Planet of the Archbuilders. Her positive approach to their trip continues even after she collapses and is hospitalized, but she soon dies of brain cancer.

Lethem has acknowledged the influence of writers such as Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor in his portrayal of Pella as a tomboy outsider. Not only is she taken away at an impressionable age from everything familiar to her, but she also loses the one person she truly loves and trusts, the one most likely to help her understand the enormous changes her life is undergoing. Pella constantly resents that Caitlin is the parent who had to die, seeing Clement as a compulsive do-gooder who cares more about strangers than about his family.

Pella’s alienation is increased by the desolate landscape of the Planet of the Archbuilders, a place much like a desert in the western United States. Then there are the potatoes that taste like different types of food, even fish; the household deer, the rat-sized creatures that are always present both outside and indoors and are constantly staring at the humans; and the Archbuilders themselves, furry human-sized creatures with tendrils who love the English language and use it more sophisticatedly than the settlers. In creating the Planet of the Archbuilders, Lethem is careful to keep a balance between the unusual and those qualities that recall life on Earth. His model, as he has noted in interviews, is Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950).

Pella discovers more than she expects on the Planet of the Archbuilders. Clement decides that his family will not take the pills the others use to protect them against the unspecified effects of an Archbuilder virus. Pella is the first of the Marshes to be affected, and her mind enters the body of a household deer, allowing her to travel about quickly and to spy on her neighbors without their knowledge. In this way, she learns about Diana Eastling, an anthropologist whom she hopes might become a replacement for Caitlin; Hugh Merrow, an artist who paints portraits of the Archbuilders; and Efram Nugent, the first settler, who has been there for seven years and sees himself as the moral force on the planet. Pella, experiencing a sexual awakening, finds herself strangely drawn to the severe, masculine Efram, who hints at a reciprocal interest in her.

Pella becomes friends with the Archbuilders, especially with a particularly talkative and philosophical one who calls himself Hiding Knell. (Other Archbuilder names, growing out of their love of English, include Truth Renowned, Lonely Dumptruck, Gelatinous Stand, Unimportant Lust, Grinning Contrivance, and Specious Axiomatic.) She considers the natives harmless eccentrics, but Efram, the only settler to speak the Archbuilders’ original language, claims otherwise because the superior Archbuilders have abandoned their planet to explore other worlds, leaving only the dregs behind.

Diana disappoints Pella by having an affair with Clement only to become disenchanted with him and leave. Efram, who overshadows Clement’s weak efforts at leadership, chases Merrow away with charges of having sex with Truth Renowned and then accuses Hiding Knell of molesting the children. Without understanding that Efram may be motivated by guilt over his feelings for her, Pella enlists the other children to strike back at him.

Girl in Landscape is a coming-of-age novel with feminist overtones, but it is much more. While all of Lethem’s novels have science-fiction elements, he, much like Bradbury, uses the genre to examine the everyday American life of the past. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), explores not only science-fiction conventions but those of hard-boiled private-detective fiction as well. With its frontier setting, Girl in Landscape is a space-age Western.

With his arrogance, muddy motivations, and insistence that he understands the Archbuilders better than anyone, that they cannot be trusted, Efram Nugent recalls Ethan Edwards, the tormented hero played by John Wayne in John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956), from a screenplay by Frank S. Nugent. (Efram is introduced standing at a distance with one arm crossing his middle and the other at his side, a posture Wayne assumes during key moments in The Searchers.) With his insistence that his moral code is superior to that of anyone else, even if it means killing his niece because she has been soiled by living with Comanches, Edwards isolates himself from everyone around him. In Lethem’s version, Pella ends up the most isolated because she knows more, partly from her spying, about the settlement’s complicated morality than anyone else. In this context, wisdom only increases her alienation.

In each of his novels, Lethem makes direct and indirect allusions to popular culture, not only because of its profound influence on American values, on how Americans conduct themselves in their daily lives, but also because of the essential playfulness of his approach to fiction. Hugh Merrow’s name, for example, recalls actor Hugh Marlowe, who appears in the classic science- fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) as well as the less-than-classic Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956). Pella, the observer, may be named for a prominent manufacturer of windows.

Efram is an ironic figure: a spokesman for moral authority intent upon instigating discord. Pella is drawn to him at their first meeting but also sees him as an antagonist: “Efram Nugent could seem too big, out here. She wanted him adjusted, made smaller.” Far from a stereotypical villain, Efram is a complex character about whom Pella learns something surprising at almost every meeting. He even seems to be a frustrated artist; his house is a more elaborate, imaginative structure than those of the other settlers.

Clement is seen as ridiculous by Pella for contributing to chaotic conditions on Earth only to begin laying the groundwork to make the new planet more like Earth. Yet Efram is also guilty of an irrational need to impose his concept of civilization upon what he interprets as the disorder of the Planet of the Archbuilders: “I think we ought to draw a line around this town we’re starting here, Marsh. Make it a human settlement, a place where kids are safe.” His first step would be to run off the Archbuilders. The danger of people such as Efram, Lethem suggests, is that they do not want merely to impose order on chaos but also to impose their concept of order on all those around them.

As Pella grows in her understanding of her new environment, she also understands more about adult behavior. She suspects that Efram is not really interested in persecuting Hugh Merrow but somehow is making accusations “for her sake.” Exactly why takes her longer to figure out: “With Efram, talk was all interruptions. He was like the Archbuilder landscape, a series of things broken off.” She is confused when he says of the Archbuilders that “if they touch the children I’ll kill them” while his leg is touching hers. He also makes threats against Clement. “This isn’t the place for him to practice his politics,” he says to Pella, asserting that his idea of order is superior to her father’s. “He should go home. Maybe he’ll leave you here, though. I wouldn’t mind that.” Efram is John Wayne as Humbert Humbert, the nymphet-obsessed hero of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955). Unlike Ethan Edwards and Humbert, however, Efram is unaware of any defects in his character and is all the more dangerous.

Pella is an equally complex character. Forced by the death of her mother and the move to a new planet to be stronger than a thirteen-year-old normally has to be, she does not always comprehend why she acts as she does, often feeling she is guided by a stubbornness inherited from Caitlin. She realizes that she must discover the truth about things for herself and cannot trust anyone else’s versions of the truth. This realization leads to a “burden . . . of lonely knowledge.” One of Lethem’s themes is how individuals can trust only their interpretations of events rather than interpretations imposed by those who want to control them. Pella wishes to escape this burden of knowledge and her growing awareness of herself as a woman by becoming “lost in childishness, in her own ebbing childhood,” but her moral responsibilities will not allow this escape. She thinks briefly that she can cope with life only by becoming like Efram, but she finally realizes that she must destroy him to survive.

Lethem takes one of his epigraphs from John Wayne himself: “Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity.” Lethem portrays those who—like Efram—want to see life in clear-cut, black-and-white terms to be dangerous but somehow essential. Girl in Landscape ends ambiguously, with Pella, who has grown to see complexity and conflict as inescapable, hoping to see Efram’s spirit reborn. There must be a balance between the unimaginative conformity represented by Clement and the rugged individuality of Efram. Neither, finally, can prevail alone. In its imaginative examination of the archetypal war between the frontier and civilization, of the tension between trying to fit in society and asserting one’s individuality—the duality at the center of the American character—Girl in Landscape is in the great American tradition established by novelists such as James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner. It offers further evidence that Lethem, with his playful but insightful reinterpretations of American myths, is a distinctive voice in American fiction.

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.

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