Girl in Landscape

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One the irrepressibly inventive Jonathan Lethem could weld science fiction and the Western into a mesmerizing novel of exploration and otherness, sexual awakening and loss. At the age of 13 Pella Marsh loses her mother and her home on the scorched husk that is planet Earth. Her sorrowing family emigrates to the Planet of the Archbuilders, whose mysterious inhabitants have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneeland a civilization that and frightens their human visitors.


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Girl in Landscape

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One the irrepressibly inventive Jonathan Lethem could weld science fiction and the Western into a mesmerizing novel of exploration and otherness, sexual awakening and loss. At the age of 13 Pella Marsh loses her mother and her home on the scorched husk that is planet Earth. Her sorrowing family emigrates to the Planet of the Archbuilders, whose mysterious inhabitants have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneeland a civilization that and frightens their human visitors.

On this new world, spikily independent Pella becomes as uneasy envoy between two species. And at the same time is unwilling drawn to a violent loner who embodies all the paranoid machismo of the frontier ethic. Combining the tragic grandeur of John Ford's The Searchers and the sexual tension of Lolita and transporting them to a planet light years, Girl in Landscape is a tour de force. 

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"One of the most original voices among younger American novelists....Jonathan Lethem's imagination [is]...marvelously fertile." —Newsday

"Lethem is opening up blue sky for American fiction."—Village Voice

"Complex, scary and finally moving."—Atlanta Journal & Constitution

Stephanie Zacharek

When we were little kids and our parents and teachers urged us to flex our imagination, they thought they were doing us a favor -- and they were, under cover of daylight. But where were they after dark, when we'd lie stone awake and frozen with fear in our beds after we'd read one of Ray Bradbury's alien-spores-in-the-basement stories, under the covers with the flashlight, or taken a Twilight Zone episode much too close to heart? When we reached adulthood, we convinced ourselves those fears were just silly: The Twilight Zone sets were cheesy, and Bradbury turned out to be not nearly as scary as Richard Nixon.

But Jonathan Lethem is the kind of writer who reassures us that none of those nights were spent in vain: We had plenty to fear -- we just needed those stories because they gave us something to hook our terror onto. Girl in Landscape -- which could be called science fiction for those who like that sort of thing, although it shouldn't scare off those who don't -- uses the raw materials of those fears (mysterious viruses that change our perceptions; dry, spooky terrain that looks like nothing so much as nightmare territory; tiny, slimy creatures that grow inside of potatoes) as a way of exploring both the awe of female adolescent sexual awakening and the treachery of it.

Pella Marsh is 13 when her mother dies and her family -- including her ineffectual, failed-politician father, Clement, and her two younger brothers -- leave the apocalyptic wasteland of Brooklyn and strike out for a better life on the planet of the Archbuilders. The Archbuilders -- double-jointed creatures with bodies of fur, shell and leathery skin -- had once built a great civilization but have since fallen into a kind of lethargy. Their planet is a parched wonderland of crumbled towers and archways, a place where tiny giraffelike creatures called household deer skitter and scamper across the plains and in the corners of people's houses, like mice. Among the small group of settlers on the planet is Efram Nugent -- a loner, a bully and an enigmatic presence who acts as if he knows everything and sometimes really seems to. (The character clearly resembles Ethan Edwards, John Wayne's vengeful, nearly unhinged character in The Searchers.) Pella is both attracted to and repelled by Efram. To her, he represents a jumble of conflicts: He's an arbiter of order in this strange new world, an idiot grown-up who doesn't know as much as he thinks he does and a lightning rod for both her sexual bewilderment and her half-conscious sense of her own allure.

Lethem tells Pella's story with the same lucidity and unaffected elegance he brought to his 1997 novel As She Climbed Across the Table. And if he's unflinching about probing the dark side of Pella's transformation, he's also almost painfully sympathetic to her, capturing the awkwardness a young woman feels when she's getting ready to fold up her girl self forever: "She moved toward her father, slowly, giving him time to catch the hint. He sat just in time, and she climbed into his lap. She didn't really fit there, but she drew up her knees and pretended. It was strange how Efram had mistaken her for a grown woman even as he towered over her, made her feel small. Whereas Clement, with whom she was still unquestionably a child, was nearly her same size." And even when Lethem uses the language of science fiction to shape his story, he doesn't have to stretch to make his fantastic metaphors work. He knows adolescence is its own kind of weird tale, and if the fear of it wasn't exactly what kept us awake all those childhood nights -- well, maybe it should have been. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A surrealistic bildungsroman about a teenage girl unfolds among the ruins and frontier violence of a distant planet in Lethem's latest genre-bending exploration of science, landscape and the metaphysics of love and loss. As the novel opens, Pella Marsh, age 13, sets out from her subterranean home in a post-apocalyptic New York City for a final visit to Coney Island with her two younger brothers and her mother, Caitlinall sealed in bodysuits to keep out the cancerous sun. Pella's father, Clement, has just been swept out of elective office in New York and has set his sights on the next political frontier: joining the first human settlers on the Planet of the Archbuilders. When Caitlin suddenly succumbs to a brain tumor, Clement whisks the grieving children by space ship to the faraway planet. Once the domain of a super-evolved alien species who used "viruses" to alter their ecosystem before abandoning it, the planet is now a hothouse landscape of ruined towers and refuse inhabited only by skittery, mouselike "household deer" and a few remaining Archbuildersgentle, druidic creatures with furry, tendrilled, exoskeletal bodies and names like "Gelatinous Stand." Clement's mission, to forge a community that embraces the Archbuilders, puts him on a collision course with Ephram Nugent, a xenophobic homesteader who so closely resembles John Ford's John Wayne that one keeps expecting him to call Clement "Pilgrim." Lethem (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997, etc.) affectingly chronicles Pella's tumultuous journey through puberty and loss and the knockabout society of children thrown together by their homesteading parents. As a result, this lyrical, often far-fetched meditation on the founding myths of the 21st century remains thoroughly rooted in an emotional world much closer to home.
Library Journal
From the only novelist listed as one of Newsweek's "100 People for the New Century": the coming-of-age story of a 14-year-old whose family flees post-apocalyptic Brooklyn for a new planet.
Kirkus Reviews
An ingenious and unsettling dystopian romance from the surrealist wunderkind who has in a scant five years produced five aggressively original works of fiction (As She Climbed Across the Table, 1997, etc.). The story begins on Earth—in Brooklyn, in fact—in a future transfigured by some unspecified (seemingly nuclear) catastrophe. The ozone layer is only a memory, people travel underground in private "subway cars," and beachgoers can tolerate the sun only when enclosed in protective portable "tents." These and similar phenomena emerge in some brilliantly managed expository scenes focussed on teenaged Pella Marsh and her two younger brothers as they endure the loss of their mother to a brain tumor and their removal (by father Clement, a defeated politician) to another planet. Arriving at a "new settlement" on the environmentally friendly Planet of the Archbuilders, the Marshalls gradually assimilate into a society of fugitive earthlings who coexist uneasily with their mysterious hosts. The Archbuilders, seemingly equal parts human, animal, and vegetable, pose a disturbing riddle: Are they benign protective beings evolved beyond humans (some of whom argue that they're only the "rubble" left behind by their more adventurous interstellar-explorer counterparts)? Or are these passive "aliens" a variety of lotus-eaters whose resignation to their stripped-down "planet" lulls their human neighbors into inert compliance with its norms? The possibilities are cleverly explored through a pleasingly melodramatic storyline that satisfies our expectations without overexplaining, and through a profusion of grimly comic details picturing life (or the imitation of it) in this bizarrenew world. And Lethem's people are fully as real as his locale seems unreal. The protagonist Pella, a sturdy girl-woman altogether equal to the tests she undergoes, is especially memorable. Wonderful stuff. One waits eagerly to learn where Lethem will take us next.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375703911
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Edition description: 1st Vintage Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 280
  • Sales rank: 819,630
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 7.94 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan  Lethem

Jonathan Lethem was born in New York and attended Bennington College. He is the author of the novels Gun, with Occasional Music; Amnesia Moon; and As She Climbed Across the Table; as well as a collection of short stories, The Wall of the Sky the Wall of the Eye. He currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Jonathan Allan Lethem (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Left Bennington College after two years

Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 27, 2012

    Interesting read with a moral

    Light and interesting read.

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