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A Dystopian View Of America's 'Fallen' Suburbs

Patrick Flanery's first novel, <em>Absolution, </em>was published in 2012.
Andrew Van Der Vlies / Riverhead
Patrick Flanery's first novel, Absolution, was published in 2012.

The suburbs can be a creepy place. And they are at their creepiest in Patrick Flanery's new novel, Fallen Land. Set outside an unnamed American city, this dark and complex thriller plays out in a half-built subdivision where construction ground to a halt during the housing crisis.

The warped, broken and partial McMansions of Dolores Woods sit on what was once a family farm. Saddled with debt after her husband died, Louise Washington is forced to sell the land her family worked for generations. When the novel begins she is living without electricity or water in the old farm house where she grew up and raised her daughter, waiting to be forced out of the now-foreclosed property.

Washington's story is not the only tale of dispossession in this portrait of a modern-day dystopia. It is also not the only tale of living illicitly.

The developer who designed and started to build the development is Paul Krovik. An extreme vision of a Doomsday prepper, he is living in a bunker under the house he built for his family when we meet him — his family gone, his house sold in a foreclosure auction, and the few neighbors who bought into Dolores Woods suing him for shoddy construction.

Krovik views the arrival of the Noailles family in the house he once owned as an invasion, and responds in kind — sneaking around at night in an escalating, menacing assault on their sanity. The final strand of this grim braid, the Noailles family are Boston liberals who buy Krovik's house and try to make new lives literally on top of Krovik. Their young son, Copley, is the only one to see Krovik, though his parents don't believe his insistence that there is a man haunting their house.

The story devolves from there — weaving a taut narrative where the characters see their lives slowly disintegrate as their lives twine together.

In the background of the story is an ever-expanding mega-corporation, called EKK where Nathaniel Noailles works. Started as a security company, EKK runs prisons as well as a school Nathaniel's son attends, and is tangled in a host of other sectors. The company's CEO has a dark vision of the future: a surveillance state where only corporations and governments are promised privacy, all aspects of citizens' lives are monitored and where people who break the laws become permanent non-citizens whose lives inside and out of prison are regulated by EKK.

Flanery speaks to NPR's Don Gonyea about Fallen Land.

Interview Highlights

On setting the book against the backdrop of the housing crisis

"I came to thinking about the housing crisis as the natural setting for the story that I wanted to tell. Because I had this vision of somebody who was in a house that was no longer theirs. And it seemed logical to set it against the backdrop of the housing crisis and think about how that was affecting very different kinds of people and the very different situations they find themselves in after foreclosure auctions and things like that."

On what he wants readers to take away from Fallen Land

"I wanted the book to speak to a kind of crisis in neighborliness, and thinking about the ways in which people are becoming so inward-looking, and the ways in which it's incredibly easy — I think in part because of technology — not to think about what's happening around us. And that's not just thinking about security but thinking about who needs help. So it's almost about a crisis of empathy with the people that we should be looking out for but who we fail to look out for in fairly fundamental ways."

On being a white writer creating Louise Washington, an elderly African-American woman

"It's something that I don't take lightly at all. And I hope that African-American readers will think that I've done her justice. But I think that having gone to integrated schools since the age of 10 and having extremely strong female African-American role models made me feel as though I could take the risk and try to write from her perspective. I mean it's interesting: I had an interview with a British journalist recently who had read it and said that it didn't seem to me like what I imagine an African-American woman to sound like. He said, 'I was expecting this finger-snapping sassiness.' And I said no that's absolutely not who she is. And what I wanted to do more than anything was try to avoid stereotype and not fall into traps of representation of race that are really easily fallen into."

On writing Louise based on his own grandmother's experience

"My paternal grandmother is sort of the germ from which Louise grows. She was the widow of a farmer. After my grandfather's death, she had to assume all of his debt and lost her own house to foreclosure in the early 1960s. After my parents as young newlyweds had to remove her from the house, she went back unbeknownst to them and lived in this house without utilities for some time before she was discovered."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff