Author Patrick Flanery talks about his novel Fallen Land, a fascinating exploration at what happens to the individual in corporate America.
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Fallen Land, Patrick Flanery’s rich and ambitious second novel, opens in 1919 with the lynching of the town mayor, sixty year old white farmer Morgan Priest Wright, and his black tenant, twenty-five year old George Freeman. The lynching follows Wright’s attempt to intervene in the case of two black men accused of assaulting a twelve-year-old girl. An angry mob turns on him. Freeman’s brother and sister-in-law return home that night to find the two bodies swinging from a tree, with Wright dressed in women’s clothing. When their backs are turned there is a thunderous sound as the tree is “swallowed up by the earth”. After the sheriff’s deputies identify the bodies, the tree and the two men are left where they are, and the ground is filled in.
This is the metaphor on which Fallen Land, which is set in the present day American Midwest, is founded. Three stories are woven together to tell its story. Louise Washington is a descendant of Freeman’s. In his will, Wright had left the farm to Freeman or, in the event of his death, his brother John. Louise’s husband worked the farm until the economy made it unsustainable. After her husband’s death, Louise is issued with an eviction order, but she remains on the property, and watches the downward spiral of the property developer, Paul Krovik, whose signature house is sold in foreclosure to a family from Boston. Nathaniel and Julia Noailles move into the house with their young son Copley, unaware that Paul is hiding out in a bunker hidden under the house. As Paul unravels, he makes night-time visits to the house that are witnessed by Copley alone, and the lives of all the characters unravel as hidden truths are forced to the surface.
Patrick Flanery is an American who lives in London. He moved in September 2001, two weeks after the 9/11 attacks. “At that point I’d already been accepted to Oxford so my coming was already in place,” he points out, perhaps to make it clear that he did not leave because of the attacks. He has nevertheless watched the changes that occurred in their aftermath from the outside. That change informs Fallen Land directly because the corporation EKK, for whom Nathaniel works, is involved with prisons, national security, education, and the new company town that is built around the remnants of Louise Washington’s farmland. Has being outside of America, I ask, helped him to better write about it?
“The simple answer is yes. That’s not to say I think it’s necessary to be outside of America to write about it. For me it was almost crucial. When I was trying to write about America while I was living there I think I was, in some ways, hampered by having grown up in the Midwest. It felt was non-literary territory, even though that’s not fair to it as there are really interesting traditions in the Midwest. I could only see it as this place of banality and one that was overshadowed by the New York literary traditions, by the New England literary traditions, even the California literary traditions. So I needed to remove myself entirely from America so I could see what was interesting about where I grew up and to find a way to write about it that would be interesting to me and the reader.”
Fallen Land gives the impression that it is about a juncture in American history, where the old traditions – the frontier style of individualism and self-reliance, which both Louise Washington and Paul Krovik demonstrate – are being defeated by the privatised, centralised, corporate ethos.
“I think that’s true to a certain extent, but I see it more as the evolution of a trend, a hardening of a trend that is already in place. What’s interesting to me, in terms of the characters of the book, is that Paul might be someone who’d be at home in a frontier tradition and is then responding in a libertarian right-wing way to the government. I think that he represents someone who could probably have been sympathetic to the corporate ethos but when he finds himself outside of that system his response becomes one of wanting to destroy that world rather than turn inward to what he needs to do for himself.”
In some ways Louise Washington is the character that harks back to the frontier traditions, and has lived her life working the land.
“And also she’s someone who represents an on-going belief in the possibility of democracy in its best terms. She is someone who would want to defend civil society. She’s not a loner in the way that Paul is a loner. Paul is much more the individualist version. She’s becomes more individualised because of the circumstances of her husband’s death and the loss of the farm. She’s become isolated.”
Louise Washington is the character who connects the past with the present, and she is the only character to narrate her story in the first person. At what point did Flanery decide that would happen?
“I wrote the first draft with her sections in third person. There was something about those sections, however, that did not work stylistically, but which also troubled me in ideological terms. I felt as though placing her voice in first person would give the reader a stronger sense of her agency, and of her being in many ways the moral and philosophical core of the book. She is the uniting thread whose acts have all kinds of positive consequences. Changing her sections to first person narration was largely about empowering her character.”
Was it difficult to write in the voice of a black woman of a certain age? I ask because, especially in Britain, what we know about how people talk is filtered through the media, and a voice from her generation is not one that is usually represented.
“First I wanted to avoid all the pitfalls and stereotypes, and to make Louise’s voice not conform to the average white reader’s expectations of how that character would or should sound. I ended up interviewing a couple in Massachusetts, a husband and wife, African American farmers, highly educated, and there’s a certain tenor from their speech that is present in Louise’s section.
“I also drew on my experience of going to magnet schools, schools that were federally desegregated, so I was bussed from a majority white neighbourhood into a majority black neighbourhood. From the age of 9 I had strong African-American role models, and particularly African-American women. As I was writing Louise, I took myself back to then, and to those women.
“I was revising the novel last summer in upstate New York, and it was at a moment when I was having a kind of crisis of faith with those new first person versions of Louise’s sections. I was going to a gym in Ithaca and there was an older African-American man there who was exactly of Louise’s generation and I heard him speaking in the locker room for several weeks, and his rhythms of speech began to inform what I was trying to do with Louise.
“It was a fascinatingly sophisticated, idiomatic speech, and he was talking to people in the gym about being a man of colour in Ithaca throughout the 20th century and his experiences of living with racism. Just hearing those nuances was enough to convince me that I was getting Louise right, even if it’s in a way that may not entirely read as accurate to some white readers, but I hope readers of colour – and particularly African-American readers – will think I have done her character justice.”
Louise, and also Paul Krovik, watch the development of the new corporate town, and the lives of the Noailles family, from their position as isolated outsiders. Yet all are concerned in their own way with what it means to be neighbourly. Flanery writes about neighbourliness throughout, and there’s an increasing sense that although the idea of what being a good neighbour means is different for everyone, what it becomes about in the end is conformity.
“I don’t know if I thought about it consciously in those terms, but certainly the idea that Louise cherishes is probably something she never had, because she’s a black farmer who’s always been surrounded by white farmers. So she’s always been isolated and craves a neighbourliness that she doesn’t get to experience.
“I think for me that shifting sense of neighbourliness is also about regional neighbourly traditions in America. In the Midwest people are incredibly friendly. You know your neighbours, and even if it is superficial people really do know each other and look out for each other. But that said there’s a certain kind of policing that occurs in those ‘friendly’ spaces where in fact that friendliness is as much about monitoring your neighbour as it is about being supportive. It’s about knowing your neighbour in order to protect your own space.”
As the old town becomes an EKK corporate town there is a framework for a new neighbourliness, and it is one into which Nathaniel, who is the National Director of Offender Rehabilitation, is drawn. This comes to a head when he is faced with issue of same-sex couple raising a little girl – not because it is two men, but because one of the men is called Azar, looks Middle-Eastern and has a beard. “He looks like a terrorist,” the increasingly paranoid Nathaniel remarks.
“What’s interesting for me about the same-sex couple is that they appear to all intents and purposes to be trying to conform. They’re professionals who are making an attempt to socialise with all their neighbours. Yet because of their difference the response is one of suspicion. And it’s a response that is largely ignorant. I wanted to introduce a same sex-couple into that world to see what the response of their neighbours might be. Even the response of the ostensibly liberal family, who are suddenly feeling themselves to be at risk, and see risk everywhere.”
Is it easier to be liberal, does he think, when the thing one is being liberal about doesn’t affect one’s life in any way? Do people’s attitudes change when it becomes something that has to be faced head-on?
“This is one of the continuing and compelling questions in American society. If you’re a liberal on the issue of race the conservatives say you’re a white liberal who hasn’t experienced crime, and the terrible implication is that crime is committed by people of colour. So what does happen to the liberal who is confronted with some kind of personal trauma that would seem to work against their ideological positions? Julia is the one who does keep to her positions, even when faced with uncertainty, and it’s Nathaniel who turns to the right.”
Flanery has written about South Africa, and the US, in his fiction. Where will the next book take him?
“After writing two books that were very serious in tone I thought that I needed … not comic relief but something that would give me more room to play. I’m working on a novel in 1950s Hollywood, set against the backdrop of the Red Scare, and also what’s come to be known as the Lavender Scare, the attempts to ostracise gay Americans from the industry.”
Find out more about Patrick Flanery and his work at this website: http://www.patrickflanery.com/