Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery: A story impaled by its own moral

It’s as a portrait of the age that this novel feels most overdone. Flanery’s American city – Omaha, Nebraska, in all but name – is a grim, featureless place, and on the way to becoming fully privatised.

Fallen Land
Patrick Flanery
Atlantic Books, 432pp, £12.99

Patrick Flanery’s second novel, in which the dead hold sway over the living, is itself haunted by ancestors, two of which are united in the name of a character who starts out on the periphery and moves steadily to the centre, Nathaniel Noailles. The first name points in the direction of Nathaniel Hawthorne, from whose novel The House of the Seven Gables Flanery has taken his epigraph and much else besides. The other allusion – so recondite as to be a private joke – is to Bullet Park, John Cheever’s high-fevered portrait of violence in the suburbs, in which a man called Nailles becomes convinced that a man named Hammer is out to harm his vulnerable, bedridden son. Flanery wants his novel to tremor with the same Massachusetts indignation – Noailles is himself a Bostonian – but the result, sprawling, portentous and creaking with symbolism, has more in common with another work by yet another New Englander, Stephen King’s The Shining, in which, as here, an East Coast family disintegrates in the Midwest, and the only sane characters are a troubled young boy and the middle-aged black eccentric whom he befriends.

The boy is Nathaniel’s son Copley, an apparently affectless schoolchild who believes that a stranger is invading their house at night – accurately, though he has a hard time persuading his parents. The eccentric is the Noailles’s neighbour Louise Washington, a former schoolteacher who is passing a busy retirement as the keeper of secrets and flames. Louise knows that the Noailles’s newly purchased house is built on the site of an unmarked grave, where a liberal mayor and his black tenant – Louise’s grandfather – were lynched and dumped during the Red Summer of 1919.

Louise inherited the land, but sold it, after the death of her husband, to an ambitious architect, Paul Krovik, whose plan to build a large development – “a rational utopia where neighbors look after each other without recourse to the state” – was scuppered first by subsidence and then by the economy. Paul ended up losing everything: his family, his mind and, most painful of all, the prototype house he built from the ground up. The Noailles, who bought the house at a foreclosure auction, are the beneficiaries of his bad luck.

But land and luck aren’t the only things that people hand down or pass on; the burden of the past takes many forms – guilt, pain, genes – as Flanery is eager to acknowledge. Paul has disappointed his father by failing to go into the military; Louise has betrayed her forebears by selling the land. Nathaniel, the most beleaguered, is a victim of abuse twice over, the guinea pig for his mother’s psychology experiments and the subject of his father’s sexual attentions. There are times when he “wonders, noticing his wife’s occasional tendency towards compulsive behavior, whether Julia might have inherited some aspect of her mother’s mental illness”– suggesting that he hasn’t inherited his own mother’s command of diagnostic vocabulary.

As in Flanery’s slick first novel, Absolution, every character is given the chance to play protagonist. After a prologue – a fauxhistorical account of the events of the Red Summer – and a flash-forward that shows Paul in a high-security prison, the narrative unfolds chronologically. It’s an odd choice on Flanery’s part to deviate from the initial pattern (alternating between Paul and Nathaniel in third person, and Louise in first) whereby the story of Poplar Farm is told through its three most recent owners. The chapters about Copley and Julia, which do little to modify our sense of them, only increase the novel’s complement of dramatic irony; we spend much of the novel watching characters suspect each other and – in more psychologically fragile moments – themselves of doing things forwhich it’s clear that Paul is responsible.

It’s one of many ways in which Flanery’s tendencies run to excess. As Paul recalls his original scheme for Dolores Woods – or as Louise calls it, “the dolorous forest of infinite sorrow” – he thinks of the house as Gothic revival but “adapted to modern needs and materials”. The detail, together with the nearby reference to a “gable”, reinforces the Hawthorne connection; but the Gothicpastiche structure is merely a Trojan horse in which Flanery smuggles an improbable range of themes and modes. Like many an American novelist before him, he tries to keep the mixture under control by drawing connections – between sexual abuse and property developing, for example – but his efforts are strained, as when Louise compares the Bush-Murdoch axis to both medieval Catholicism and pathogenic fungi: “the language of the Crusades comes thrusting up into the talk of newsmen and politicians, soil-borne disease like Macrophomina phaesolina and its charcoal rot, turning language gray, spreading fungus in the drought of our time, through the dryness of speech, conditions inhospitable to growth, to the flourishing of debate”.

It’s as a portrait of the age that the novel feels most overdone. Flanery’s American city – Omaha, Nebraska, in all but name – is a grim, featureless place, and on the way to becoming fully privatised. Nathaniel, who works for an outsourcing company, aspires to move into the public sector: “if the state has not, at that point, ceded all responsibility to civic life and public wellbeing to private corporations”. We are being invited to scoff at Paul’s naivety when, having realised that malls, “with their private security guards”, are not a safe place to linger, he reflects gratefully that “a street is a place where anyone can stand”.

Towards the end, Flanery adopts a longer view and tries to mount an attack on not just the American but the human taste for ownership. In weighing the pleasures of hand-wringing against the costs, he might have remembered the example of Haw - thorne, who, in his preface to The House of the Seven Gables, said that though he chose to give his story a moral (“the wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones”) he refrained no less consciously from impaling the story with the moral, an approach that could only deprive it of life or cause it to stiffen in “an ungainly and unnatural attitude”.

Flanery’s American city – Omaha, Nebraska, in all but name – is a grim, featureless place. Photograph: Getty Images.

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism