My first foray into the world of New York’s own Jonathan Lethem. To be honest, I don’t really know much about him or his work but I have heard of him over the years. I have to admit I was a little surprised by this very strange novel - a Science Fiction novel with a touch of a Western (specifically “The Searchers”, something the author himself cops to). It’s highly imaginative and it was very easy to get lost in Lethem’s strange world he created.
The story takes place some time in the future after the Earth experiences some sort of climate calamity. We are introduced to the main characters, living in Brooklyn. An ex-politician with no future since losing an election, his wife and three children. Out of the children it is Pella Marsh, 13 years old, who is the main protagonist. We first encounter them just before they take a trip to Coney Island so the children can see it before they are to leave for another planet where some humans have already left for some years before. In order to experience the beach, they must don special suits on order to protect them from the sun’s extremely harmful rays. This short introduction is to lay the groundwork for the family dynamic more than anything else but the reader is privy to why humans have decided to leave Earth for this new colony. Just before they are about to leave, the children’s mother - Caitlin - suffers a brain hemorrhage and is hospitalized. The family soon learns Caitlin has an inoperable tumor. After Caitlin’s death, the next chapter begins with the family already on the new planet which the residents call The Planet of The Archbuilders.
The Archbuilders are a strange species, once a proud, inventive, advanced race, most of whom had left their planet to search for greener pastures in the stars. Those Archbuilders who were left behind are a mere shadow of their ancestors, now living on a terraformed planet (for the new human colony) and amongst ruins of their former civilization. Their intelligence allowed them to learn the human’s language (since their own language consisted of hundreds of dialects) and they peacefully interact with this new human colony, most of whom had been on the planet, creating homesteads and towns for well over a decade. They also bear strange names like Hiding Kneel, Truth Renowned, Lonely Dumptruck and Gelatinous Stand (names they’ve chosen due to their love of the “strangeness” of the English language). Their appearance is completely alien - fur, scales and tendrils. However they seem to be extremely passive, almost too passive, nearly inert and somewhat useless. There is another strange creature on this planet called “The Household Deer”, a sort of insect/giraffe like being that swarm all over the place and basically have run of the planet.
When the Marsh’s first arrive they meet the already settled homesteaders and are slowly acclimated to what will become their new way of life - and here the story more or less revolves around the now 14 year old Pella. Upon first arriving, the Marsh’s were advised to take special medicine in order to ward off Archbuilder viruses but the strong willed and rebellious Pella refuses to do so and slowly these viruses begin to take effect. This causes some concern for a longtime resident - and novel’s antagonist - Efram Nugent, a sort of stoic, “John Wayne” like figure who can’t stand the Archbuilders and dismisses most of them as “navel gazers” and “sexual deviants”. He takes an interest in the young Pella (and Pella, feeling the first pangs of puberty, begins to feel something of an attraction for Efram). The bulk of the novel then focuses on Pella and the other children trying to readjust to their new world as Pella slowly becomes infected with the Archbuilder virus which enables her (and anyone else infected by it) to occupy another person’s body and experience things through their eyes - in Pella’s case - one of the thousands of Household Deer. It is through these “out of body experiences” that she learns of the dark secrets taking place in the colony.
With her ineffectual father more concerned about an affair that he’s having with one of the colony’s leading biologists, Efram Nugent’s iron will and extreme suspicions regarding their new neighbors, things slowly begin to go awry once it is suspected that these passive and “naval gazing” Archbuilders are not what they appear to be. Efram worries that the new colonists are too willing in “going native” and he will do anything in his power to stop them from doing so. It is here where the references and similarities to “The Searchers” reveals itself.
Underneath all the weirdness and beautifully depicted world, you have a story about the difficulties of colonization and how humans will take their baggage with them wherever they may decide to venture forth to in the universe: prejudice, violence, sexual deviances, struggles for power and control and trying to become acclimated with “the other” without everything spinning out of control. We experience the emotionally detached adults versus the sexual awakening of a young girl. There are influences of Steinbeck and especially Stephen King here. An enjoyable novel for it’s imagination alone. A strange story, indeed.