Dashed hopes turn to dystopia

Fallen Land

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Geordie Wil­liamson

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

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