frigate logomenu bar shop archives Links about us essays/features reviews/critiques search home
frigate bird1
frigate bird2
frigate bird3

pdf icon
Click here to download PDF version to print.

acrobat reader
Click here to download PDF Reader.

The Language Domains of Jonathan Lethem

Girl In Landscape
by Jonathan Lethem
Vintage Books (Random House), 1998
Paper, 280 pp, $12

Amnesia Moon
by Jonathan Lethem
Tor/Tom Doherty, 1995
Paper, 247pp, $12.95

As She Climbed Across the Table
by Jonathan Lethem
Vintage Contemporaries, 1997
Paper, 212 pp, $12

Gay Partington Terry

I started reading science fiction in junior high. It was an attempt to escape my boring small-town life in northern Appalachia (Pennsyltucky). I didn't ask for much, one stimulating idea, one piercing sentence...There were some great SciFi writers then (late 50's, 60's), but there was also a lot of drivel. With no one to guide me, I plowed through with the hope of finding that one bright nugget that would incite my own spirit. I gave up in college but have been lured back from time to time.

Girl In Landscape
One of the writers that draws me back is Jonathan Lethem. Great ideas and social commentary are certainly good reasons to read him, but his quirky use of language is the most interesting incentive. In Girl In Landscape he describes English from the point of view of aliens called Archbuilders: "a language of enchanting limitations...words...garishly over-loaded with meaning." The Archbuilders claim that speaking it is like "stringing poems into sentences" and "speaking hieroglyphs." They give themselves names like Hiding Kneel, Truth Renowned, Grinning Contrivance, and Specious Axiomatic, because they see English as a "language all of names." They say, "English words are funny. English sentences are grave." Lethem's books may be an "easy read," but his exploration of language is complex and profound. He can describe characters purely in terms of speech, "all interruptions...a series of things broken off." He can paint surreal pictures: "a basin ringed by crumbled arches. Eroded spires that rose a thousand feet into the air. Fallen bridges, incomplete towers, demolished pillars. The valley was a monumental roofless cathedral with only the buttresses intact, and the calm purple-pink sky...glowed like stained-glass windows between these vast ruined frames."

On one level Girl In Landscape is a coming-of-age story. When their mother dies, their father, who is "one of those irrelevant parents," takes Pella Marsh and her brothers to a strange planet. Pella is forced to grow up, and in the process becomes part of the landscape, running, hiding in it, spying on the others (in a most unusual way). It is left to Pella, who is a mix-up of girl/woman/other, to unravel the complexities of a new order. Human bigotry, "misplaced intensity," ignorance, alien complicity, and household deer complicate her task. It's a "clunking challenge" for a 13-year-old, but Pella is "brave like an arm." (Did I mention that the Archbuilders' English speech patterns are something like Gracie Allen's?)

Amnesia Moon
Then there's Amnesia Moon...

It's a rare man who can keep his sanity while the world and its rules constantly change; Everett Moon, AKA Chaos, is not quite one of those. He is, however, undeniably a very rare man, a man with gaps in his life, a man with a tenuous FSR (Finite Subjective Reality).

The Chinese have a story about a sage who dreams he's a butterfly and when he wakes, he's no longer certain whether he's a man who dreamt he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he is a man. Chaos's road trip is something like the butterfly dream. Reality and dream are not widely separated; people have overlapping dreams and live in each other's dreams, and worst of all, you can be tracked by your dreams.

In Amnesia Moon, Chaos goes on a surreal road trip with a hairy little girl named Melinda. Each place they pass through has entirely different local syndromes that morph into and out of each other. There are genetically damaged people, lead by Kellogg and his Food Rangers, in the Little America they leave behind. There are people who live totally enveloped in green fog, McDonaldonians, Vacaville's-Luck-Board and Government Stars, robot televangelists, and old friends condensed into vials of liquid ready to be injected. Melinda comes of age in this book, and maybe Everett Moon does too. But mostly we see our world and ourselves in an Escheresque configuration and wonder which is the dream.

The third book in this eccentric list is As She Climbed Across the Table. It is Lethem's "romance." (OK, it does have some fantastic science in it.) This is the book that you plot out at a bar one night with a friend who is physics major. But when you go home and try to write/paint/film it, you find it's impossible. Lethem pulls it off brilliantly. In the process he manages to satirize love, science, and academia.

Philip Engstrrand is "interdean" at a small California university. (Where else could such a thing happen?) His girlfriend, an assistant professor specializing in particle physics, dumps him for...nothing...a void called Lack. The situation is hilariously absurd. As Philip tells Alice: "I can't possibly compete. I could never offer you as little as Lack does. He's playing hard to perceive."

The one thing Lack doesn't lack is taste. It likes pomegranates, potassium, lightbulbs, mirrored sunglasses and yellow construction paper. It rejects aluminum foil, a bow tie, a batter's helmet and Alice (who remains undaunted). Philip's campaign to win Alice back is complicated by clambering blind roommates, well-meaning grad students, a horse-faced deconstructionist, a psychologist specializing in obsessive coupling, Italian physicists, student protests, delusive conditioning, and various other space and time events.

In the end, Philip manages to find a way to compete with Lack in its own domain. We are lead on an inspired tour of Substance and Nothingness and, as in Lethem's other works, are provided with an abundance of bright and provocative nuggets.

All of Lethem's books are teeming with language play, odd characters, unique settings, plot turns and juxtapositions. Like itinerant pieces of an Escher puzzle, they emerge as he trespasses on anomalous worlds that parallel and intersect our own.

This is Part II of Gay Partington Terry's essay on Jonathan Lethem. See Issue No. 1 for Part I.

©2000-2002 Frigate: The Transverse Review of Books
All rights reserved on behalf of the authors.

We welcome your comments and suggestions on our site. Please email <>.

Back to Frigatezine Home Page

Click here for public-service announcements.