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

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle