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

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.