[25 February 2014]
In writing Fallen Land, Patrick Flanery has taken on a challenge—and one that he has lived up to exceptionally. The novel uses as its jumping off point the 2008 mortgage crisis, a subject that one wouldn’t immediately associate with compelling literature. The economic recession and the dominoes it set in motion may still resonate with most readers, but its rawness in our shared memory puts it at risk of being too uncomfortably lifelike (or at the other extreme, too dry) to make for good fiction.
In Flanery’s capable hands, though, it becomes the fulcrum for a deliciously complex tale that is psychological drama, keen social commentary, and riveting suspense all in one.
Fallen Land follows three initially-distinct threads, the sequence of events that weaves them together, and the collective destruction that ensues. The catalyst in this scenario is one Paul Krovik, a land developer who dreams of building a suburban enclave of neo-Victorian houses, but whose zeal outstretches his material resources. His ambitions steadily encroach on family land passed down through generations to Louise Poplar, land to which she is deeply and viscerally connected. Krovik’s grip on reality disintegrates alongside his ability to realize his goal, and when his development fails, he retreats to a clandestine bunker beneath his former home. As Krovik falls deeper into the clutches of paranoia, the heedless Noailles family moves into the house above, bringing with them ambitions of their own for a stable, wholesome future.
Flanery’s world is stylized, like a version of real life that’s been shifted several degrees towards absurdity. It takes emergent fears—about security, integrity, and the American dream—and amplifies them, creating a universe that is at once impossible and clearly recognizable.
Nathaniel Noailles, a father desperate to fulfill expectations of success and manhood, becomes roped further and further into EKK, the security and defense corporation he works for. EKK may seem innocuous, but we soon see it building a monopoly on citizens’ lives, essentially forcing employees’ children—including Nathaniel’s son, Copley—into its draconian school systems.
Worse, we gradually learn of EKK’s insidious agenda to explicitly perpetuate the prison-industrial complex, forcing recidivism to ensure access to a cheap labor force. By tapping into our collective belief in privacy and the supposed benevolence of the justice system, Flanery seamlessly blurs fiction and reality, causing readers to question morality and the systems that supposedly uphold it.
Flanery writes from different eras and through different eyes, shifting the burden of narration between his five main characters. Like his choice of subject matter, this technique has the potential to go awry. Though it does overwhelm at times, it also showcases Flanery’s literary finesse. Good authors aspire to give each narrator a unique voice, but Flanery surpasses that by crafting their distinct worldviews from the ground up. This meticulous format is the perfect vehicle for seamless character development, fusing each person’s defining characteristics and motivations with a distinct format, tone, and style of diction.
Flanery’s prose is like molasses—satisfyingly vivid and descriptive, though exhausting to work through at times. When Louise is narrating, that quality functions as the perfect tool with which to establish her relationship with Poplar Farms. In contrast, Krovik’s chapters are erratically punctuated, echoing with his impinging madness. Each member of the Noailles family is fleshed out through their narrative style: Nathaniel, through emotionally reserved third-person; his wife, Julia, levelheaded mother and psychologist, through her clinical chronicling of her own mental health; Copley, the perceptive and eccentric six-year-old misfit, through detailed schedules of his days.
There’s a lot going on in this novel: many interconnected plotlines, exploring many concepts, emotional arcs, and social criticisms. Moving between perspectives and receiving so much input in an order that isn’t necessarily logical forces readers to pay attention to detail, which lends to Fallen Land’s success as a compelling psychological thriller. Even so, there is something lost in the choice to explore so many angles of the story.
The book begins with the background of Louise’s inheritance, which introduces issues of race relations and history. Although these concepts shape her character and come through in her perspective, they have almost too subtle a presence to feel fully connected to the work as a whole. Additionally, the shifting narration occasionally feels unbalanced, skimming over the potential goldmine of Julia and Copley’s inner lives in favor of Nathaniel, Krovik, and Louise.
The complexity of Flanery’s approach makes it difficult for readers to get oriented to the story as a cohesive piece, but as they begin that process, the intrigue builds exponentially. Rich with powerful imagery detailing landscapes both physical and mental, the novel is both awe-inspiring and profoundly disturbing. And once it has hooked you in, Fallen Land doesn’t let go until its shocking, uncomfortable resolution.