Dashed hopes turn to dystopia
By Patrick Flanery Allen & Unwin, 422pp, $27.99
THE most terrifying thing about the dystopia described in Fallen Land is that it is also a contemporary state-ofthe-nation novel. The nightmare America it maps is the same one we read, watch or hear about daily, in which government agencies spy on citizens, where illegal immigrants are demonised and a mostly black underclass is held in a prison gulag vast as Stalin’s archipelago. Here is a land where rolling natural disasters presage even greater calamity, and where everything from corn to individual DNA is being patented. If ever you wanted an antidote to the exquisitely anodyne selfrepresentations bruited about the world by the US via satellite and fibre-optic cable, then this is the book with which to disabuse yourself.
That does not mean Patrick Flanery’s second novel is a Pinteresque rant, designed to goose the moral scruples of a Guardianreading bourgeoisie. The Californian-born novelist writes instead from love and rancour: love of ideals of liberty and equality propounded by America’s founding fathers, along with the environment that sustained those who upheld them; and rancour — summarised in terms frigid and clear as a glacier-fed river — directed at those who have damaged the nation’s social contract just as they have despoiled its physical places.
The novel opens in a second-tier middleAmerican city in the recent past. A builder, Paul Krovik, has thrown up a model development on the site of a farm that belonged for generations to a family of risen black sharecroppers. In reality his housing estate is pitted with bloated, ersatz and shoddily constructed versions of 19th-century vernacular housing: an idealised past rendered deformed, monstrous, by the demands of late modernity. Where there should have been two hundred houses there are only twenty-one, but even those, complete as they are, terrify where they are meant to comfort. He wanted to build a neighborhood that evoked the country’s pastoral history, but he has, he knows, created something closer to the landscape of nightmare. The lumber warped, the land subsided, houses split: the surveyor was a friend out of college who, though qualified, did the job fast and on the cheap.
The inevitable failure of the development, conceived before the global financial crisis, has cost Krovik his wife and sons, along with his house, the most grandiose on the estate.
But Krovik has gone to ground, quite literally: into the secret bunker he built for himself and his family beneath the dwelling in case of civil strife or some other apocalypse. There he guts the deer he hunts daily and broods on his absent family and fallen state: another Frankenstein’s monster, poured into a hard masculine mould by his military father and then abandoned to the world.
The new owners take up residence with no awareness of their underground lodger. Reluctant buyer Nathaniel Noailles is the competent, effete, portly child of sadistic parents, freshly elevated to a senior position in a multinational based in the city, whose task is to find ways to make profits from the pool of labour swelling the company’s many privatised prisons.
His wife, Julia, is a scientist building her own monster, a kind of Google-based carer for the elderly and infirm, in the house’s basement. Only their son Copley, a gifted child some way along the autistic spectrum yet the most warmly human of his domestic unit, notices Krovik’s traces. It will be the confusion and mistrust that he seeds in his parents as a result that sets a suburban tragedy in motion.
Yet it is in documenting the texture of the