August 2013

Matt Hartman

fiction

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

Just two pages into the first chapter of Fallen Land, I counted references to the following issues: the prison-industrial complex, suburban sprawl, strip malls, the prevalence of fast food, industrial farming, and obesity. As Patrick Flanery's novel unfurls in the subsequent pages, he also touches on racism, misogyny, the role of corporations, a growing emphasis on security, the questioning of reality and sanity, immigration, and the financial crisis. This laundry list of motifs makes clear that in Fallen Land, his second novel, Flanery is aiming at nothing less than an accounting of America -- an accounting in the double sense of telling the story of this land and of reckoning the gains and losses that story implies. "Speech passes like wind," one character says, "its effects ephemeral, unless the speech is a tornado stripping bare the land, revealing new surfaces for growth."

Fallen Land is a sprawling novel about a sprawling house, built in an unnamed state in America's heartland, and the three generations who owned the land the house sits upon. The novel is unquestionably a novel of the housing crisis, intently focused on the places we make our homes, the machinations that keep us there or force us out against our will, and the connections to the land we've gained and lost in the process.

The problem with Fallen Land is that Flanery takes these issues to be novel, as though by speaking of them at all he is "revealing new surfaces for growth." His everyman character, Nathaniel Noailles, works for a private security firm that concocts ways to increase the profits from their prison labor system. Though this is certainly a crucial issue for America, Flanery approaches the topic without the irony someone like Don DeLillo has used to such great effect, and as a result his earnestness becomes heavy-handed, especially early in the work.

But to Flanery's great credit, he often twists that feeling to his advantage. Nathaniel's company runs a school to which he feels compelled to send his son. A modern-day Panopticon replete with surveillance technology, the school provides a glimpse (admittedly extreme) at the possibilities of contemporary America while harkening back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the puritanical ideal of the City on a Hill. Fallen Land is at its best as it takes these commonplace criticisms -- of securitization, of the growth of corporations -- and digs up their roots. Flanery shows not that we have these problems (that we already know), but rather why they're not going away even though we know them.

It's a novel obsessed with structures and structural problems. Paul Krovik, the developer who built for his own family the house Nathaniel bought for his, is the central demonstration of that fact, as well as the driver of the novel's central plot. Krovik dreamed of building a neighborhood with the philosophy that "the past was preferable and this country was at its greatest... before the rift and emancipation and urbanization." But he succeeded merely in making poorly constructed, quickly decaying "pastiches of Victorian architecture just out of scale... houses with elephantiasis or localized gigantism, houses that belonged in a side-show of architectural grotesques."

Krovik's failure with actual structures is mirrored in his failure to understand social structures: his development fails -- "he's triple mortgaged," one character exclaims -- and the ensuing debt forecloses his house, his dream project, and his family as his wife and sons flee to Florida. But Krovik is too attached to the land, to what it symbolizes, and so he opts to hide out in a bunker he built in secret under the Noailleses' new house. His presence mocks Nathaniel's work in security; Krovik becomes a specter who subverts the Noailleses' new lives in ways they struggle to explain, the stress building on Nathaniel's moral dilemmas at work, his son's difficulties adjusting to his new school's emphasis on behavior control, and the difficult childhoods he and his wife have in common that rise to the surface in the wake. In all, external forces find their way inside the home, bringing into question each of the character's images of themselves and their families.

"I had no real choice," Louise, an earlier owner and the self-proclaimed protector of the land that houses the novel's events, says, "...the choice was dictated to me: by time, by laws, by debt and circumstance, by the unhappy curve of history's low arc." This is the core of Fallen Land: an investigation into the personal history of these characters to uncover the larger problems shaping their lives like testing a leaf to discover chemicals in the soil. The novel opens with a story that Louise tries to piece together -- a story of a cruel double murder, of bigotry, and of how Louise inherited the land she loves even more than Krovik -- that provides scope and circumstance.

In this context the broader issues Flanery targets lack the obviousness he occasionally lets slip in. He avoids the na´ve wish for an era gone by, instead complicating the past and raising more questions. He paints America not as an entity corrupted by modern life, but as a land that was always problematic. "Private is now public," Nathaniel's boss says, but Flanery has enough subtlety to question just what we would do with public land, with the dangers that lurk for suburbanites even in such tamed wilderness as forest preserves. "In this republican country, amid the fluctuating waves of our social life, somebody is always at the drowning-point," Hawthorne says in one of the epigraphs, disclosing Flanery's lack of optimism.

It may be obvious today that Eden is a fiction, but Fallen Land points to the idea that even the stable home is a Potemkin village. The novel has moments where the sheer volume of issues cause lapses, but Flanery also confronts the traumas of American life with poignancy and the gravity they deserve, approaching them with the care required to help weather the storm.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery
Riverhead
ISBN: 978-1594631801
416 pages