Landscape with Invisible Hand

Landscape 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 […]

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 adversary 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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