A review of Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem

Much of the book depends on the ability of several of the characters to shape-shift and Pella especially spends much of the novel as a small animal ubiquitous on the planet and known as household deer, shy creatures that haunt the shadows and actually look more like giraffes than deer. This has a charm in itself and constitutes a major plot convenience that is neat in its functionality.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Girl in Landscape
by Jonathan Lethem
Vintage Contemporaries
1999, ISBN 0-375-70391-8, $13.00, 280 pages

Fantasy can be a powerful tool in the hands of a gifted writer, and works of fantasy by gifted writers have a long and distinguished history. Elements of Girl in Landscape are indistinguishable from those to be found in run-of-the-mill science fiction or westerns, for Girl in Landscape is a frontier story, but Lethem takes this material to interesting levels and a perceptive reader will quickly forget the ingredients that Girl in Landscape shares with more tawdry stuff.

Lethem, living now in Brooklyn, has written four other novels and a collection of short stories. He shows a marked ability at not repeating himself.

In this novel we learn of an earth that has become a nightmare. Clement Marsh is a political figure who has fallen from power because of his failure to arrest some of the catastrophe that has engulfed the people of earth, committed to underground living because the global atmosphere makes life on the surface impossible. He and his wife Caitlin deal largely in bright platitudes that take little account of reality. Clement determines to take his failed life as a politician and his family to another planet. The planet has been engineered for human habitation by a race known as the Archbuilders; the more advanced members of the race left the planet to explore other planets. The Archbuilders who remained show little evidence of intellectual superiority, being very childlike in their behavior and in their besotted infatuation with English. In appearance they are a cross of insect, bird, and plant.

Earthlings are few and there is only one town. The Marsh family now consists of the father and his three children: Pella, Raymond, and David. Clement decides, a dream of future political activity determining his plan, to settle in a small community of about half a dozen families. The death of Caitlin from brain cancer took place on earth but although absent from the novel physically, she continues to influence her children and determines at least some of the course that the events take.

In the limited scope that Lethem allows himself, there is something of the advantage that Jane Austen found in the study of a handful of country families. Efram Nugent dominates the local society, but Pella Marsh dominates the book. Much of Lethem’s story of the conflict mixed with powerful attraction between Pella and Efram. He is an übermensch but she is more of an übermensch as it were than he.

Much of the book depends on the ability of several of the characters to shape-shift and Pella especially spends much of the novel as a small animal ubiquitous on the planet and known as household deer, shy creatures that haunt the shadows and actually look more like giraffes than deer. This has a charm in itself and constitutes a major plot convenience that is neat in its functionality.

Lethem has the ability to bring his words to a quick boil with a carefully worded insight that comes on the reader like a sudden heightening of consciousness. And this is a careful and meaningful book. Feminist readers may regard the last lines a bit queasily, but, this apart, everything is so right in this book as to make it a desirable acquisition for every reader.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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