Near the end of this Foucauldian nightmare of a novel, Nathaniel Noailles, employed to implement prisoner 'rehabilitation' programmes with global security company EKK, finally converts to his employers' view of the prison population: 'Assuming criminality might in fact be innate and the first visible crime committed a form of self-identification by the criminal that he must enter the corrections rehabilitation system (in other words to take up his rightful place, a place reserved for him, in which his own purpose in the world becomes clear), then the permanent monitoring of anyone who has ever committed a crime... seems not just logical, but natural. It is the only way truly to protect the law-abiding, who are themselves, of course, also a natural group.' In one sense, this is a modern horror of stigmatisation and classification, but it also has the Calvinist ring of the saved and the damned; appropriate, therefore, that the title concerns fallen land. The further echoes of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon in the novel, like Nathaniel's son, Copley's, tightly regulated and monitored school day at an academy also run by EKK, retain this dual vision; Copley is categorised as psychologically deviant, but also suspected of being innately wicked, tainted with original sin.
The basic premise is simple; after property developer Paul Krovik fails to make good on his vision of building hundreds of new houses in a perfect new midwest neighbourhood, he is forced to sell everything, including his own house, which is bought by Nathaniel and his wife Julia. However, they do not know that this land has a long history of loss. Louise, inheritor of the farmland after a nineteenth-century lynching, was forced to sell in her turn to Paul, and now they are both lingering on in the land they cannot bear to leave; although while Louise lives on quietly in her own battered farmhouse, Paul has created a secret hideout in the basement of the Noailles's new property. Much has been written about this novel as a description of the failure of the American dream, and so I'm going to take a different angle, if only because the aspect of the novel that interested me the most was not its overriding message, but how Flanery creates a sense of true menace from these social and political observations. James Walton criticised the novel in the Telegraph for shuttling between 'heightened social realism' and 'dystopian sci-fi', arguing that it fails to become more than the sum of its parts, especially as the sections from Louise's point of view are 'overwritten', so the individual elements 'end up undermining each other.' I would make the opposite argument; it is precisely Flanery's eclectic use of style, including the use of the conventions of thrillers and horror fiction, that allows this book to carry the weight of the didactic message it wants to convey.
Although not set in the Deep South, the novel's immediate resonances are those of American gothic, with the house weighed down with the ghosts of the past and the indefinable sense of menace in the landscape. There are traces of more traditional horror stories as well - as the plot unfolds and Nathaniel's relationship with his troubled son breaks down, the most obvious reference point becomes Stephen King's The Shining, which adds to the sense of isolation. As Copley is shipped off to the psychiatrist, another horror trope comes into play as a peculiar child becomes subject to a drug regime that cannot improve his condition. Flanery's inspired idea is to make these supernatural suggestions flesh and blood - whether in the corporeal presence of Paul, the poltergeist in the house, or in the very real systems of EKK surveillance that are beginning to pervade everyday life. And while the portrayal of global security is clearly the most dystopian element of the novel, it is also chillingly believable, and I'm not sure why we need to know whether this novel is meant to be set in an alternative present day or in some close future to appreciate that. Social realism, however, is clearly an inappropriate tag; and possibly where it becomes less useful to read the novel solely in the light of a critique of US society.
As for Louise, her sections do verge towards being overwritten, laden with nostalgia for a way of life that is disappearing. However, the sheer bleakness of the rest of the novel makes these digressions far more welcome than they would be if they dominated the text. The sort of prose that I struggled with in meditations on nature such as Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways becomes much more resonant in the context of the literal destruction of Louise's home, which she views as an extension of her body: 'we watch as the machine approaches, raising an arm to tear off a corner of my porch with its bucket, reaching again, ripping a gash, opening wide all that should remain private... This house is my Corsian twin: each blow she suffers pulls a sob from my throat.' Louise's narrative is vital because she is the only character to perceive the importance of an organic connection between past and present; the type of connection George Eliot was thinking of when she wrote in The Mill on the Floss that 'We could never have loved the earth so well if we had no childhood in it.'