To begin my consideration of what literature has to say about how we should live, I look back to an essay I wrote three years ago as my first—and last—column on contemporary literature for a now-defunct Web site. Girl in Landscape is one of my favorite novels (the other two: The Crying of Lot 49 and Persuasion), and in this essay I sort out why this novel matters so much to me.
The essay now raises some questions. Why the emphasis on emotional reality? Is it accurate to equate what Stephen Dobyns calls “the writer’s relation to the world” with what I call emotional reality? What other than one’s emotional reality constitutes one’s relation to the world (ideas about the world, for example)? Finally, what about that concluding reference to writing about myself? I don’t believe that my writing is an act of either onanism or narcissism, but why should anyone else care about what I might discover about myself through reading or writing?
Questions to consider in future … but for now, some notes on what’s changed in the three years since I wrote the essay: I now live in Victorian Flatbush, aka Ditmas Park, no longer just down the slope from the Central Library; Jonathan Lethem has written a seventh novel (more conventional and so less exciting to me than the others); and my then-fiancé is now my husband.
I’m Not Afraid of Aliens, and Neither is Jonathan Lethem
Five years ago, when I lived in the Bronx, I regularly wandered up to 231st Street to browse through the shelves of the Kingsbridge branch of the New York Public Library. I chose Girl in Landscape on the strength of its title. I had read another novel by its author, Jonathan Lethem, the previous summer. As She Climbed Across the Table was okay, interesting—I don’t recall all that much about it anymore—but through the snowy weekend that concluded 2000, I did not put down Girl in Landscape until I finished it. How could he possibly understand? I marveled, wondering how a male adult could so successfully evoke the raw, bewildered rage of 13-year-old Pella Marsh, taken by her uncomprehending father after the death of her mother to live on another planet.
I live in Brooklyn now, just down the slope from the Central Library, where half of Lethem’s novels are shelved with science fiction and half are shelved with general fiction. I’ve read all six novels, but so far I’ve read only Girl in Landscape more than once (three times). In each of his two most recent novels, Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, Lethem has drawn closer to home—or closer to reality, if you prefer to call it that. The most recent, Fortress of Solitude, is also the most autobiographical; its protagonist, Dylan Ebdus, grows up in 1970s Boerum Hill, the same Brooklyn neighborhood where Lethem lived in the ’70s.
In his sixth novel, Lethem arrives where many novelists begin: with their own stories. To get there, he first had to go through what he has referred to as his “clumsy attempts to work out his surrealist impulses in the despised medium of science fiction.” Although others of his novels are categorized as science fiction, Girl in Landscape specifically comes to mind in relation to this quotation, because of its origin in an essay titled “Defending The Searchers,” in which Lethem never mentions Girl in Landscape by name but does refer to it a couple times obliquely as “a novel I’d predetermined should be influenced by The Searchers.” Most likely biased by my own experiences of loss, I cannot see whatever clumsiness there may be to Girl in Landscape; I see only the emotional truths of its metaphors. When your mother dies, it is because the entire Earth is in a poisoned ruin. Life after your mother’s death is in exile on another planet. The father who remains is a politician who lost the election and is left with only empty words. Growing up is the guilty exploration of an alien landscape. Even the vastness of these planet-sized metaphors itself conveys their emotional truth: to lose a parent is to lose an entire world; to grow up is to discover a new one.
Writes Stephen Dobyns in Best Words, Best Order, “I believe that a poem doesn’t try to present reality but presents a metaphor that represents some aspect of the writer’s relation to the world: a metaphor that can be potentially re-experienced and become meaningful to the reader.” As Lethem himself has stated, the most salient aspect of his relation to the world is the loss of his mother to a brain tumor when he was only 14 years old (and she only 36). A writer of novels rather than of poems, he finds in science fiction both an array of metaphors to evoke emotional truths and a framework that “explains” these metaphors as actual events.
The logic of metaphor, of surrealism, of dreams, is not solely literary. It is fundamental: we are always transferring our emotions to other, safer objects. Just a few Fridays ago, there I was: in a blind rage at the Red Sox’ loss to the Yankees, at the drunken Mets fan who insulted my fiancé at our favorite bar, at my fiancé for his complaints about my inane and repetitive mockery of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. In my rage at the game, the Mets fan, my fiancé, I finally let go—and let myself feel my rage and terror over the mammogram I had two days earlier. Six times the technician screwed one of my breasts into a machine that did not give; when I thought I could not possibly hurt more, she screwed me in more tightly. Six times she said, “STOP breathing.” Then I returned to wait in a room with a dozen other smocked women for the possibility that the doctor might call me in to tell me that I had the same cancer that killed my mother ten years ago. The doctor did not call me in; eventually, they let me go, then sent a letter to say that all is well, at least for now. How much safer it was to feel my rage over a baseball game, two days afterwards, in my own bed, in my fiancé’s arms.
And so in Girl in Landscape, Jonathan Lethem channels his grief over his mother’s death through an obsession with The Searchers. By casting his grief in the surreal terms of science fiction, by channeling it through the John Ford western, he gains the safe distance he needs from it, paradoxically, in order to write about it. Then, in subsequent novels, he can successfully take on his material in a less and less oblique manner—as he does in Motherless Brooklyn and in The Fortress of Solitude. And as for me, I chose to write my first column on my favorite book by my favorite contemporary author in the hopes of simultaneously discovering and revealing what I value most as a reader. I find (today? for now?) that what matters most is the evocation of emotional truth: a good book makes my own emotional reality—or, to put it in Dobyns’s terms, my own relationship to the world—available to me. Thus, I also find that in writing about a good book, I write about myself. When I first read Girl in Landscape, Pella Marsh reminded me of my youngest sister. Now when I read it, I see how much she, in her rage, is like me.