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Landscape with Invisible Hand

Landscape with Invisible HandLandscape with Invisible Hand, M.T. Anderson
Candlewick, September 2017
Reviewed from ARC; five stars

It’s not fun to lose, and as readers, we don’t usually take pleasure in witnessing our protagonists suffer and fail at every challenge they face. Yet we also know that failure, yes failure, can be highly instructive and valuable. In Landscape with Invisible Hand, Adam does nothing but fail in the short vignettes that make up M.T. Anderson’s latest novel. It’s science-fiction satire that goes down easy but has a clear agenda. Anderson’s a previous Printz honoree, for both Octavian Nothing books, and he’s a consistently great writer, even if he isn’t winning all the awards every time out. Landscape doesn’t have the momentum of American Street or The Hate U Give but that doesn’t mean it can’t surprise us in February.

Adam has Merrick’s disease, a rare gastrointestinal disease and, Anderson does not shy away from describing the effects in graphic detail. In the future depicted in Landscape though, Adam could easily be cured by the vuuv, the alien colonists who brought life-changing technology and made a lot of working-class people expendable in the new economy they single-handedly created. In order to earn some money, he and his girlfriend Chloe decide to video 1950s-style dates for vuuv consumption–apparently the aliens love 1950s earth culture. Anderson is quite broadly poking at a dominant culture’s tendency to fetishize subcultures or the culture of people in places they colonize (he’s also examining our obsession with documenting and consuming every moment of our lives but that’s not as emphasized; Anderson’s interested in the commerce of being an internet celeb). We see this happen in Western culture all the time; remember how bindis, a religiously significant symbol worn by Hindu and Jain women, became “fashionable”? Anderson carries out this theme again in the main plot: Adam’s effort to win a vuuv-sponsored art competition. How can he adopt the style they prefer without sacrificing his own ideas? “Landscape is a hard sell with the vuuv. They think we paint still lifes. Fruit in a bowl and stuff” (60), Adam’s art teacher explains. Adam really needs the prize money in order to afford the cure for his Merrick’s disease and it could also help his family in general.

I can’t claim credit for this interpretation, but a friend in my librarians’ book club noted that it didn’t sit well with him that Anderson was writing about the appropriation of marginalized cultures from a position of power as a white man. There are many PoC and LGBTQ+ authors who don’t get a chance to share their stories, so in a novel about having a voice and making art as a marginalized person, my friend thought the message didn’t work for him. While I think it’s an interesting point worth recognizing, I don’t totally agree. The theme is executed well throughout the novel and the author’s identity is less significant to me because I read it as empathetic rather than appropriating the struggle of others.

In addition to cultural consumption/appropriation, Anderson is also satirizing our economic and healthcare systems and income inequality. Life on earth has become so much worse for so many people, yet, the vuuv didn’t have to decimate most of earth’s population, or take over key leadership positions by force, they simply had to offer their superior technology to powerful CEOs who, in turn, used their knowledge to eliminate the need for human labor. Advancement and disruption doesn’t always benefit everyone, only those at the top. (I’m looking at you, bodega tech startup that never was.) Anderson paints a disturbing picture of what life would look like if our entire economy was controlled by a single powerful force. Not only is this a nightmare version of our current world, in which Google, Facebook, and Amazon make their slow march toward consuming all aspects of our lives, it’s also an extremely realistic portrait of what can happen to indigenous cultures when colonists arrive. Humans only have opportunities to make significant money in and around the vuuv, mainly in service and tourist industries. Those jobs are scarce so competition is cutthroat. Adam’s mother is assaulted while applying for a job serving broth. Each vignette in Landscape serves one or more of the many ideas Anderson is satirizing. This is dark and incisive satire.

Still, there’s something lacking in the text and for me, it’s the characters. Aside from the Merrick’s disease and his painting, Adam has no defining qualities that contribute to a full character. His blankness makes him useful as a reader’s way in to the story. He’s sympathetic, pathetic even, and ordinary. He faces extreme adversity with a fortitude and ingenuity that seems to come from nowhere. Chloe, his mother, and sister are also broadly drawn. Despite the brilliance of the thematic execution, these characters don’t breathe on their own. They fall apart outside of the plot which also ultimately serves the themes. Plot, however, is a little stronger because each vignette is so tidily executed and pushes logically toward the conclusion.

With one major strength and a couple weaknesses, I’m skeptical of Landscape‘s Printz chances. Those five stars though are 100% deserved and I’m even surprised not to see it on more end-of-year lists given its eery timeliness. What about you, readers? Is a vuuv-like future in the cards for us? Did Adam’s story touch your heart more than mine? Let’s discuss.

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About Joy Piedmont

Joy Piedmont is a librarian and technology integrator at LREI - Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School. Prior to becoming a librarian, Joy reviewed and reported for Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch. She reviews for SLJ and is the President of the Hudson Valley Library Association. When she’s not reading or writing about YA literature, she’s compulsively consuming culture of all kinds, learning to fly (on a trapeze), and taking naps with her cat, Oliver. Find her on Twitter @InquiringJoy, email her at joy dot piedmont at gmail dot com, or follow her on Tumblr. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, HVLA or any other initialisms with which she is affiliated.

Comments

  1. I admired this very much for theme, world-building, and witty writing. The characters, I agree, are more canvases for us to place our own ideas rather than highly developed on their own. While that made it less satisfying for me, a character-driven reader, I found the distancing intentional and necessary for the fable/allegorical sensibility of the work.

    • Joy Piedmont says:

      That’s a good point, Monica. Adam, Chloe, even Buddy, don’t *need* to be more developed than they are here because of the novel’s style and tone. However, I think that their simplicity may hurt this book’s chances against something with a lot of complex character writing in addition to similarly strong thematic and story work. I think there’s plenty to unpack in the story and theme to think about for quite some time, but I wonder if this is the kind of work that gets overlooked because of the slighter characters.

  2. By far one of the cleverest, interesting, inventive YA novels of the year. Agree, it is too slim to fully fall in love with the characters, but that can be excused as it is definitely a book of ideas. A strong contender for me personally.

  3. I enjoyed this one well enough but I’m still mystified that it’s getting so much attention this year–maybe I’m just missing something? I agree about the characters, Joy. I thought Adam was interesting but everything else felt very flat. The way Anderson explored poverty and underemployment was fascinating and visceral and very authentic but again was only a small part of an already small story. My favorite thing about this book was the ending and the way that Anderson turned conventional ideas of success and completion upside down. The last five pages almost made the rest of the story worth the journey. Almost. That said this book did make it onto my library’s shortlist and I have a strong suspicion it will walk away with a Mock honor if not the win.

  4. Karyn Silverman says:

    This left me a little cold, and I’m really struggling to figure out why. I think maybe the balance of satiric elements with the pathos didn’t fully work for me? I didn’t really find this funny, which might just be me, but I found sometimes this was more heartfelt than effective satire should be, and then it was more broad than a heartfelt little portrait should be at other moments.

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