Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem

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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...

(The entire section is 2,117 words.)