Compliment and spoiler warning for a post which will probably take me longer to write than it took me to read my way through the 422 pages of Flanery’s second novel because ….
Compliment #1 – I could not put it down.
Compliment #2 – I haven’t been this engrossed since I first read Andrea Levy’s Small Island (and that night I forgot to go to a rock concert …)
Once upon a time a sinkhole opened in the ground in Omaha, Nebraska and a 40ft tree ended up 40ft underground. That incident from Flanery’s childhood is relived in the prologue of Fallen Land when the sinkhole appears after a double lynching in 1919. The tree sinks with corpses still attached. Spring forward to the present and on the same plot of land, one geological layer above the tree if you will, Paul Krovik, a failed property developer, has retired to a secret bunker beneath his old home to lick his wounds and regroup. Meanwhile, on the surface, a family from Boston, enticed by career opportunities and more property for their dollar, purchase Novik’s house and move cross country to start a new life.
Now imagine there is a madman living beneath your house who wanders through it during night time hours while you are blissfully asleep. However, your young son sees him in the shadows and lets you know who is behind the increasingly disturbed episodes in the house. You, however, damaged by your own parents, determine that your child, forced to attend your company’s neo-con school despite sustained bullying from pupils and teachers alike, is a disturbed fantasist who must be drugged into conformity.
While you are carving a career, ironically for a prison contractor with a twisted vision of turning penal establishments into profit-making concerns, the very foundations of your ever-so-but-not-really-safe nuclear family are threatened because you are simply not paying attention to the things that matter.
Compliment #3: The best state-of-the-nation and failed American dream allegory I’ve read since The Great Gatsby.
We know something awful happens in the first chapter where we visit Paul Krovik in prison. This serves to build tension from the start and as events within the house escalate, that tension becomes unbearable. And yet when the tragedy occurs, there’s a clever inversion of expectation in that it doesn’t happen in the way expected at all. Neither did my antipathies rest where I thought they would. That’s because the madman in the bunker isn’t the most sinister presence in the novel …. not by a long shot.
Compliment #4: I was surprised even though the ending is known from the beginning.
The structure is complex, flitting between past and present, told in a variety of points-of-view. Most are 3rd person but one is 1st. The voice of Louise, a coloured woman who inherited the land via her lynched grandfather, only to lose it to the developer, is the most lyrical. It reflects her sincere love of and her mystical connection to the land. Neither is the prose spare elsewhere and this for a do-not-get-on-with-Coetzee reader is a very good thing.
Compliment #5: The novel’s visual prose springs vividly to life in the mind’s eye.
While this is a first-class thriller, it is interwoven with much literary intertextuality. Flanery acknowledges that the second section is a specific homage to Kafka’s story The Burrow. I’ve already mentioned thematic similarities with Gatsby and Krovik’s obsession with the land brings to mind Tolstoy’s parable How Much Land Does A Man Need? I’m told too that I should look up Nathaniel Hawthorne”s The House of the Seven Gables … and Icarus too.
When I asked Flanery at EIBF about something I wish he could have avoided, he replied that he had always seen that figure as an Icarus character. That surprised me (again) and …
Compliment #6: Two months after I read the book, I’m still thinking about it.
So are there any negatives? This is obviously an ambitious novel and for me it lives up to that ambition. I can see though that some might find it overcooked. Too many nods to the literary past, a tendency to over-explain (I didn’t need an explanation of the meaning of Dolores Woods). I was a little irked by Louise’s voice – not convinced she would have been so eloquent actually. But there was nothing that stopped me powering through the pages and the only thing preventing me from starting all over again is my TBR mountain range.
I will be recommending Fallen Land to my reading group to give me a legitimate excuse for a reread.
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