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Authors: Jonathan Lethem

Girl in Landscape

BOOK: Girl in Landscape
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Jonathan Lethem

“[Lethem’s] language has never been more poetically descriptive. He is capable of bold invention.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“A fresh, frequently wacky, young voice.… Best is
Girl in Landscape’
s subtle undercurrent of fear—of space, the unknown and the alien other.”

Detroit Free Press

“Lethem’s amazing story and spare styling shine.”

—City Pages

“Lethem manages to pull off something magical with every novel.… Like Italo Calvino’s
, [he] introduces a loopy, surreal world where murkiness and mystery run amok.”

St. Petersburg Times

“This lyrical … meditation on the founding myths of the 21
century remains thoroughly rooted in an emotional world much closer to home.”

Publishers Weekly

“The landscape, bleak, bare and thrilling, is a character on this planet just as it is in a Western.”

Los Angeles Times

“Lethem constructs [his] worlds with a minimum of prose, revealing just enough to drive the story, but leaving even more to the imagination.”


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;
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.


Copyright © 1998 by Jonathan Lethem

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday, New York, in 1998. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication

Lethem, Jonathan.
Girl in landscape / Jonathan Lethem.
p. cm.
eISBN: 978-0-307-79177-1
1. Life on other planets—Fiction. I. Title.
[PS3562.E8544G5 1999]
813′.54-dc21 98-41173

Author photograph © Mara Faye Lethem



The sight of the mountains far away was sometimes so comprehensible to Natalie that she forced tears into her eyes, or lay on the grass, unable, after a point, to absorb it … or to turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it; she was not able to leave the fields and the mountains alone where she found them, but required herself to take them in and use them, a carrier of something simultaneously real and unreal …

—Shirley Jackson
, Hangsaman

Screw ambiguity. Perversion and corruption masquerade as ambiguity. I don’t trust ambiguity.

—John Wayne


Mother and daughter worked together, dressing the two young boys, tucking them into their outfits. The boys slithered under their hands, delighted, impatient, eyes darting sideways. They nearly groaned with momentary pleasure. The four were going to the beach, so their bodies had to be sealed against the sun. The boys had never been there. The girl had, just once. She could barely remember.

The girl’s name was Pella Marsh.

The family was moving to a distant place, an impossible place. Distance itself haunted them, the distance they had yet to go. It had infected them, invaded the space of their family. So the trip to the beach was a blind, a small expedition to cover talk of the larger one.

“They don’t build arches, or
, anymore,” said Caitlin Marsh, speaking of the faraway place, the frontier. “Pella, help David find his shoes.”

“Why are they called Archbuilders, then?” said
Raymond, the older of the two boys. He sat beside his brother on the bed. He already wore his shoes.

The boy’s question was breathless, his imagination straining to reach the place the family would go. Straining to match the velocity of the coming change.

He scuffed his shoes together, waiting for an answer.

“They aren’t called Archbuilders,” said Caitlin Marsh. “They call
Archbuilders. What’s left of them, anyway. Most of them went away.”

As their mother spoke of the planet where the family would move, about the creatures there, she spun the place into existence before their eager eyes. Directing the talk at her sons, she made the journey sound like a game, her voice lyrical and persuasive.

“Went away where?” said Raymond.

“Just a minute, Ray,” said Caitlin Marsh. “David needs his shoes.”

But the girl knew the talk was for her sake as much as for her brothers’, and she listened, intent on hearing a mistake or misunderstanding in the talk, a flat note in the song her mother was singing. Something she could point out to make it all come undone, so the family would have to stay.

“I’ve got one,” said David, pointing to his shoe, smiling up at his mother weakly. The boys were daunted and obedient, spellbound, sensing the strangeness in their mother.

“Where’s the
one?” said Caitlin wearily. “Pella, help him.”

Caitlin’s long black hair fell over her face as she
turned from the children’s dresser to the closet. She was distressed, almost frantic. The girl wanted to fix her mother’s hair for her, draw it back.

Draw them all back, if she could. Back some months ago, before her father had lost his election, before the idea of leaving had ever occurred to her parents. Draw herself back before her period had come. Before blood, before loss, before Archbuilders.

“They went away where?” said Raymond again.

“They went into space, far away,” said Caitlin.

“But where?” said Raymond.

“Nobody knows. The ones we’ll meet are the ones who stayed. There’s not too many. But they’re very particular about the words they pick in English. Archbuilders is how they see themselves, even if they don’t build arches.”

“That’s kind of stupid,” said Raymond thoughtfully.

“Do they have families?” said David.

“They live a long time,” said Caitlin. “So they hardly ever have kids. And there aren’t men and women Archbuilders. Just one kind. They’re called hermaphrodites.”

She was overwhelming them, piling the facts on almost nonsensically. The only thread that connected all the nonsense was Caitlin’s insistence, her urgency. Her motheringness.

?” said Raymond.

“It’s when you’re a man and a woman at the same time.”

“Say it again.”

Caitlin repeated the word, and Raymond and David both rehearsed it, tittering.

“Here,” said Pella, after digging under the bed and finding David’s shoe. It was enclosed in a sort of web of dust, as though they’d already abandoned their house and come back centuries later to search for this shoe. Pella pulled the shoe out and brushed it off.

“Help him with it,” said Caitlin, from the closet. She organized the beach stuff: blanket, sand toys, sun cones. “Lace his pants in so there’s no skin showing. You know how.”

Pella sighed, but lifted David’s foot and tucked it into the shoe. Pella always touched her brothers tenderly, even when she was furious. And David, the moment he was touched, was passive, like a kitten seized by the nape.

“Thank you, Pella,” said Caitlin, as she pushed a carton of old blankets back into the chaos of the children’s closet, the outgrown clothes, the board games, forgotten things soon to be abandoned.

“Where do they live if they don’t build anything?” said Raymond.

Pella stopped at the window. Put her fingers to the sealed layers of glass, darkened to blunt the sun. Outside was the river, the bridge. The tunnels and towers of Manhattan. The world. Don’t take me away from the real world, she thought.

“They live outside, anywhere,” said Caitlin.

“There’s not too many of them around now. Just a few.”

“Like animals?” said Raymond.

“They changed the weather,” said Caitlin. “So it’s always pleasant outside. There was a time before when the Archbuilders were very good at science. That was when they built arches, too. Come on, I’ll tell you at the beach.”

Caitlin herded them toward the basement. David began by carrying the flattened sun cones, but their circumference was bigger than he was tall, and he had to lift them over his head to keep them from scraping along the stairs. Caitlin and Raymond laughed at him, Caitlin openly, happily, her pensiveness suddenly lifted. Then she had Pella trade with David. Pella carried the cones, he took the blanket.

Pella decided not to laugh today.

Their subway car sat silent and ready in its port, its burnished shell radiant in the gloom. Raymond and David had been sneaking down to play in the brightly lit cabin of the car in the otherwise shadowy basement, and Pella could have predicted that she would find the interior littered with Raymond’s action figures, hero duck and villain ducks, plastic headquarters and helicopter, fake rocks and trees. She gave an exaggerated sigh when she saw them. But Caitlin just smiled, unflappable again. She swept the toys out and loaded in the beach stuff.

They climbed in, knees nestled together in the middle of the car, cones upright against the opposite seat. Caitlin keyed in the request. It was five minutes before
the network responded and black steel arms drew them out of their basement and fastened them to the passing train.

“This used to be one of the old subway lines,” said Caitlin. “The F. One of the ones from before the network, when it was just a few trains, real trains that everyone rode on together. I used to take it to the beach with your grandmother and walk on the boardwalk and go to Nathan’s and eat hot dogs, and you know what else they sold?”

BOOK: Girl in Landscape
2.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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