Whether they admit or it not, everyone writes with all the other books and movies they have seen in mind and everyone reads with all the other books and movies they have seen in mind. And now we can throw games and comics into the mix. For example, Halting State won’t make a lot of sense unless you know something about online role-playing games. I understand that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is very much about comics. And to really understand Girl In Landscape, it looks like you need to love Westerns.
In a Locus interview, Jonathan Lethem says while he was writing it, he was obsessed with John Ford’s Westerns, especially The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There’s such a feeling of emptiness in this book and so much that’s only suggested, I think I would have liked it better if I had seen either of them. I can only get as far as understanding why he calls it “a Southern Gothic Western set on Mars.”
After her mother’s sudden death, Pella Marsh and her family emigrate to The Planet of the Archbuilders. Once it was home to a great civilization, but most of them left to conquer other stars. Their descendants still call themselves Archbuilders, but they spend their time puttering about in the ruins. Now a tiny settlement of humans is joining them in a desert landscape, where the level of invention is so sparse, it feels more like a movie desert than a real desert.
Those few inventions are pretty neat. First are the Archbuilders themselves, curious big furry, scaly, shelly beings with double-jointed limbs. Then there are the “potatoes,” genetically engineered tubers that grow in various forms. The most wonderful and disgusting are “fish” potatoes, which slosh even before you cut them open and let out a batch of tadpole things with legs. My favorites are the “household deer,” tiny little giraffe-like creatures that get underfoot and shooed away and ignored. I like the use of “deer” in the old sense of random small animal. I like the allusion to the Roman household spirits. And I really like how it turns out that people are only pretending to ignore them.
As Pella discovers, you can drift into sleep and run with the household deer and spy on people. She drifts in and out of waking and dream life, poking into the inevitable dark secrets of the town. One of the secrets seems to be that everyone knows what the deer really are, and won’t admit they know, because that would suggest how they learned about it. I think. It’s hard to say because the more anyone knows about the Archbuilders the more elliptically they speak. I suppose this is the Southern Gothic aspect.
There are things I liked and an awful lot that I just didn’t get, which made it feel incredibly slow. The first three chapters form a 40 page prologue on the Earth they leave behind. After that, it took another 100 pages just to get me interested. Eventually, Pella grows up, and confronts the truths and lies in her world, and in the end mades her place in it. I just couldn’t bring the right things to my reading of it to come away satisfied.