By Matthew E. Milliken
April 21, 2017
Jonathan Lethem’s 1998 novel Girl in Landscape is a coming-of-age tale set on an alien world.
The story unspools from the point of view of 13-year-old Pella Marsh. Her father, Clement Marsh, a New York politician, recently lost an election and is planning to move to an alien world with his wife, daughter and two young sons. Their preparations are interrupted when Caitlin, Pella’s mother, suddenly falls ill in a prologue set on a future Earth.
The old world is a dire place. Most humans (at least in New York) have retreated underground because the sun’s intense radiation has made the outdoors deadly. But the city’s infrastructure is failing, and morale seems to be terrible. Indeed, the deadly collapse of a subway tunnel combined with the specter of mass suicides — Raymond, the 10-year-old middle child, calls this “that lemming thing” — are two major reasons why Marsh’s party lost the election in a landslide.
But as Pella rightly predicts, relocating to an alien world won’t be the magical cure-all Clement and Caitlin seem to want their children to expect. Their new home boasts a hospitable climate, friendly but somewhat puzzling aliens, and plentiful, easily obtainable (if bland) food. But even as pleasant a globe as this still merely serves as a canvas on which humans project their fears and insecurities.
The world is known only as the Planet of the Archbuilders, a moniker derived from the appellation for the intelligent but dissolute alien species that lives there. The Marshes moves to a remote settlement, a would-be town so perfunctory that it’s not yet been given a name. There, they find a handful of families who engage in the same behaviors they did back on Earth.
The main difference is that the settlement is caught between two opposing forces: The mysterious, largely passive Archbuilders, who speak cryptically, and a man named Efram Nugent, whose profound understanding of the aliens may only be matched by his deep contempt for and distrust of them. Pella is instantly struck by Nugent when she first encounters him:
Her house was in sight when suddenly she was not alone. A man in a hat stood on a ridge to her left, between her and the sun, so that he was a silhouette against the pink. Standing still, he was almost like another of the broken arches on the horizon, somehow drawn suddenly close.
She stopped, and they were both standing still. For a moment he just stared, one arm crossed over his middle, the other at his side, and Pella could imagine any expression on his face, and did. Then he started down the ridge toward her. She stood and waited.
“You headed up to that house there?” he said when he got to her. He pointed first at her and then at her house, in a gesture gentler than his voice.
“New family,” he said. He was tall, but not spindly like E.G. Wa. Without his being at all fat, his hips were wider than his shoulders.
She nodded again.
“Well, I’m headed there myself. Ben told me, and I thought I’d come say hello. Only Ben must have left out that Marsh was remarried. You’re too young to have had three kids.”
Pella was bewildered, then astonished, as she worked it out, the meaning of what he’d said. Was he joking? “I’m one of them,” she blurted. “One of the three kids.”
Pella was already feverish in her panic. Now she felt her face flush with shame.
But he wasn’t embarrassed. “Then this Clement Marsh must be older than I understood. You’re not much of a kid anymore.”
If he was making fun of her he didn’t give it away. “What’s your name?”
“My name’s Efram.” He smiled, and she permitted herself a look up at his face, but the hat cast a block of shadow across his brow and nose. His smile was bigger one on side than the other, and he held it so that it seemed carved in rock, the way he’d stood still when she first saw him.
The uncomfortable tension between Nugent and Pella is appropriate, insofar as there’s an uncomfortable tension between Nugent and everyone. It heightens matters that Pella is adjusting to seemingly everything — an entirely new planet, her new friends, her wounded family, her changing body.
For some of these matters, no one can give Pella reliable guidance. The Marshes opt against taking the medicine that protects humans from Archbuilder viruses, which allows her to project her consciousness into local critters called household deer. This is not all that different from giving a 13-year-old the ability to transform into a caterpillar that spies on the people around it, an experience that hastens the precocious Pella’s tortured journey into puberty.
Girl in Landscape is perhaps most successful as a portrait of the intense countervailing forces that define much of adolescence. I enjoyed the book, but it’s hard to recommend because I don’t know who its ideal readership would be. It’s not quite right to call this a science fiction novel or a young-adult book, but it’s not quite wrong to give it those labels, either. Perhaps, in the end, the best way to describe Girl in Landscape is that it’s well suited to people who like challenging novels.