Girl in Landscape

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published March 17, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

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.<BR

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.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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