Girl in Landscape

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1787 words.)