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Book Review / Novel

One-Dimensional Life on the Final Frontier

GIRL IN LANDSCAPE by Jonathan Lethem. Doubleday, $22.95, 272 pages

April 08, 1998|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

The Earth's ozone layer is all but destroyed, and life is only possible indoors and underground. Fleeing this constricted existence, a few pioneers have journeyed out to a new frontier. Instead of the West, it is a distant planet; instead of covered wagons, they travel in a frozen state by rocket.

Jonathan Lethem uses a science-fiction form, but it is a western that he aims to re-create. Not any old western but specifically John Ford's "The Searchers," a 1956 film that, little appreciated at the time, has since become an intellectual cult classic. In it, the aging John Wayne asserts the values of the white West by "rescuing" a reluctant Natalie Wood from the Indians she lives among.

Whatever Ford's intentions, "The Searchers" has taken on a complex postmodern aura. It allows its viewers a fashionable double vision, a moral switchback that provides them a rush of dramatic journeying but drops them safely off where they started out. They are able to throb at Wayne's he-man grandeur and gruff sentiment, while condescending to his good cowboy-bad Indian bias. For some of us, nowadays, it is more comfortable to enjoy our heroes when not disturbed by the need to admire them.

Double vision unfortunately blurs a good deal of Lethem's story. He has turned out an allegory that attempts to reproduce the retrospective ambiguities of "The Searchers," but he has not been able to write an equivalent for the emotional force of the Wayne persona. Dramatic ambiguity requires placing its hesitation point between two highly charged opposites; in "Girl," the opposite charges are weak or obstructed.

A few Earth families have settled in a Monument Valley-like landscape featuring the 1,000-foot towers and spires of a departed planetary race known as the Archbuilders. Only a few of these remain, leather-skinned, bug-eyed and topped with fronds. They speak hundreds of languages, and possess a capacity for out-of-body movement and perception.

Their sweetly fatalistic disposition is quite unlike that of their ancestors who, after working technological prodigies on their planet, took off to inflict them somewhere else. Those remaining were presumably the dropouts.

The story is seen through the eyes of Pella Marsh, an adolescent newly arrived with Clement, her widowed father, and two little brothers. The community they join teeters precariously between confidence in its American settler values and spooked suspicion of the natives. The Archbuilders' strangeness is worrying, even though they display not the slightest resistance and helpfully share such inventions as a ubiquitous potato-shaped food in flavors of fish, salad, tea and dessert--available simply for the digging.

Pella's father is an idealist but weak and self-indulgent. He argues that the settlers must mingle with the Archbuilders and learn their ways. Opposing him is Efram, who dominates the settlement, grows his own food, refuses the Shmoo-like potatoes and insists on keeping the Archbuilders excluded or worse. He is the Wayne figure, even physically--"the way he moved his shoulders to carve the air"--and displays an old-fashioned courtesy that masks a ponderous determination. Clement is no match for him; the planet, with its elusive magic, may just be.

Pella is the balance wheel. She opens herself to the Archbuilders and their out-of-body talents; she travels about in the shape of one of their mouse-sized deer that go everywhere and see everything. Yet increasingly she falls under the spell of Efram's primal allure. She will waver up to the end when she comes into a female power of her own, and there is a climactic confrontation.

"Girl in Landscape" has compelling moments. There is a homeliness in some of the settlers' scenes; they could be frontier families in the 1870s just as well as space-traveler families in the next century. The landscape, bleak, bare and thrilling, is a character on this alien planet just as it is in a western. The disintegration of the settler community, undone by its rejection of the elusive culture of the Archbuilder remnant, reflects upon what has been lost or trampled in our own Western myth.

Lethem's narrative, though eventful, lacks conviction or clarity of intention. Many things happen--a pollen storm, a lynching, the collapse of Clement, Pella's alternate seduction by the Archbuilder world and by Efram, a western-style shootout--but they shape neither the story nor our perception of it.

Consistent, perhaps, with an intention to reproduce the ambiguities of "The Searchers," Lethem succeeds only in making Pella and Efram, the principal figures, indistinct. It is as if we were reading a screenplay instead of a novel; we wait for actors to flesh out the characters and make the choices.

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