April 1998

Girl in Landscape review

By Jonathan Lethem
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Jonathan Lethem's newest novel, Girl in Landscape, has drawn comparisons to works as disparate as John Ford's The Searchers and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Though there's truth to this, the author of As She Climbed Across the Table has ventured into unchartered territory with this latest book.

I read the book in one night. Granted, I'm a pretty fast reader, but I don't read that fast unless I'm really enthralled, so I guess you could say I liked it. Girl in Landscape is an inventive twist on the pioneer theme, and its plot turns on the strengths and weaknesses of its characters yes, sort of like John Ford's The Searchers, although I found myself comparing it more to William Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident. And while Pella Marsh, our heroine, undergoes a sexual awakening, Lolita never experienced such side effects. Then again, Lolita wasn't a science fiction novel (at least I don't think it was). Where Lethem really succeeds, and where the comparison to the classic western is valid, is the way in which pioneering of any sort whether it be in the old west or on a planet light years from Earth strips away the veneer of civilization and returns us to survival mode.

Survival is what Pella Marsh and her family have in mind when they emigrate from an environmentally devastated Earth to the Planet of the Archbuilders, but they end up trading one kind of despair for another. You don't need a history of the 21st century to figure out why Pella's family is leaving having to go to the beach covered in a transparent plastic cone tells you all you need to know. Pella's inept politician father hasn't got a clue what he's doing, but then, neither does anyone else on this world, long abandoned by a super-race of aliens and populated only by their seemingly dim-witted descendants. The only player in this little drama who has control of his environment is, naturally, the villain; Efram Nugent looms large in this book, much like Lee Marvin's Liberty Valence loomed large in another John Ford picture. Pella is both drawn to and repelled by him. And I'm not even going to mention the house-deer.

I really admire writers who do a lot with a little; that is to say, writers who construct their worlds with a minimum of prose, revealing just enough to drive the story, but leaving even more to the imagination.

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Girl in Landscape

Girl in Landscape

By Jonathan Lethem
ISBN 9780385485180

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