In ‘Beautyland,’ an Awkward Alien Reports From Earth by Fax Machine

BEAUTYLAND, by Marie-Helene Bertino

“He was too good for this earth,” Abraham Lincoln said of a son who died young.

So it seems was Adina Talve-Goodman, an aspiring writer who survived a heart transplant only to perish of cancer at 31 in 2018 (her essays were published posthumously), and is acknowledged by Marie-Helene Bertino at the conclusion of her astonishing third novel, “Beautyland.”

Bertino’s protagonist is also named Adina, which means “noble”or “delicate” depending on the source. Before we went down internet rabbit holes to scrabble up such information, “Beautyland” reminds us, we were fascinated by black holes. Never mind the fault in our stars (though one character gets cancer as well), this is a book that exults in them.

The fictional Adina may be too good for this earth, but more significant: She is not exactly of it, having been somehow sent pre-utero by alien life-forms on an endangered planet — “her superiors” — to find out if they can live here, endangered though it also is. In one of Bertino’s cleverest conceits, Adina communicates with them from a very young age by fax machine. (What better use for this outdated but unkillable technology, the faxiest thing about which is that paper spit out at the end with the one line saying the fax didn’t go through?)

“Beautyland” begins in the late 1970s, when the American space program had passed through the wide-eyed phases of Project Mercury and the moon landing and become a little more, well, mundane. “Star Wars” was in movie theaters and Johnny Carson was making fun of his frequent guest Carl Sagan, who, Adina faxes, is “a polarizing astronomer who wears natty turtleneck-blazer combos and has been denied Harvard tenure for being too Hollywood.” (“YES WE KNOW ABOUT HIM AND HIS TURTLENECKS,” the superiors write back wearily.)

Though Adina’s consciousness is expansive, her orbit is constricted — she is vulnerable, a mollusk without a shell, like E.T., another of the era’s cultural touchstones, though passing as a human. She grows up skinny, bucktoothed, myopic and sensitive to sounds in a sinking home in Logan Triangle, Philadelphia. Her single, Sicilian mother serves boiled chicken and drives a VW that has to be prayed up hills.

When it was time to decide the official food of movie-watching,” Adina huffs to the home office, “human beings did not go for Fig Newtons or caramel, foods that are silent, but popcorn, the loudest sound on Earth.” This is the kind of humor that made Seinfeld millions, and Bertino does pathos, too.

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